Many students consider the College’s Title IX Office to be among Vassar’s most important administrative bodies. Much to such students’ chagrin, the Title IX Officer position has been empty since June.
After months of searching, however, the Administration hopes to put these concerns to rest with the appointment of Rachel Pereira as the next Director of Equal Opportunity and Title IX Officer.
Pereira, who will start at Vassar in January 2016, will inherit the position from Interim Title IX Coordinator and Assistant Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) Kelly Grab, who herself took over responsibilities for the Title IX Office upon the departure of the College’s last Director of EOAA and Title IX Coordinator Julian Williams.
After Williams left in June to pursue a job at George Mason University Grab took over Title IX functions from her new Assistant Directorship position in the EOAA Office, while Faculty Director of Affirmative Action Colleen Cohen took over EOAA functions.
During this interim period, Dean of the College Chris Roellke chaired a committee in search of a more permanent successor to the EOAA Directorship and the Title IX Coordinator position. According to Dean of the Faculty Jon Chenette, who served on the search committee, when three finalists had been chosen in September, they were each brought to Vassar for a day-long series of interviews with community members. These meetings included discussions about campus climate with students associated with CARES, SAVP and the VSA, as well as conversations with faculty members involved with SART, the Senior Officers staff and administrators from the Office of Campus Life and Diversity and the Dean of Students Office.
Chenette explained that throughout this process the College was looking for someone not only with a background in law and adjudication, as has often been the case in the past, but someone with enough experience in Title IX issues and the drive to promote long-term improvements to related activities and programming.
“We hoped to find someone with strong legal background, excellent listening and investigative skills, calmness in stressful situations, experience with developing and implementing equal opportunity and Title IX policies and training programs, and a commitment to justice,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “We also hoped to find someone with higher ed experience who would become a campus leader—visible, accessible, personable, and fair.”
Pereira was the exact person to fit this description. Pereira wrote in an emailed statement, “I have been a lifelong advocate of increasing educational opportunities for all throughout my career. As such, I found a personal affinity with the founding philosophy of Vassar as one of the first institutions to open its doors to offer women higher education.”
As of Monday, Oct. 26, the results of those student, faculty and administration interviews produced a decision in favor of Pereira, who will take up the position already well-versed in education and equal opportunity administrating. Holding a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and an Ed.D. from Rutgers University, she has worked with the New Jersey Amistad Commission and the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission, taught as an adjunct professor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education and served as a reviewer for President Obama’s “Race to the Top” education policy initiative. She currently serves as the Title IX Coordinator and Equal Employment Opportunity Officer at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.
As a former teacher and principal herself, Pereira knows first-hand what it takes to work with students, both in the classroom and as an administrator. “I am looking forward to combining my love and experience in education with the practice of doing all we can to prevent discrimination and sexual assualt in my role in Vassar.”
Senior Intern at SAVP and CARES listener Rachel Spayd ’16, who participated in the interviews, reported that students asked the candidates about similar issues, emphasizing the importance of a student-centric, and more importantly a victim-centric, approach to the position’s responsibilities and institutional power. “We talked a lot about being transparent, letting students know about changes that are happening, making sure that the consent policy is clear to students,” Spayd explained. “We asked about what their response would be if students weren’t happy with the result of a Title IX case, about their experiences with the LGBTQ community and how they would deal with issues of racism on campus.”
Spayd noted that one of the things that stood out about Pereira was her experience confronting many of the Title IX-related problems Vassar faces now in her time at Drew, such as addressing a problem of anti-black racism and providing personal support for victims of sexual assault and dating violence.
SAVP Coordinator Charlotte Strauss Swanson agreed. She explained, “I was particularly looking for candidates who not only valued the nature of an equitable investigatory process, but who were also sensistive to the specific needs of survivors and the special challenges they often face when reporting.”
In spite of a prolific career with diversity, inclusion policy and educational administration, Pereira will be faced with the task of rebuilding relations between her office and the community, which has often felt that the position does not offer all the support that it can. Many feel that the source of this tension is a lack of transparency from administrators tasked with adjudicating difficult, controversial cases.
Chenette opined, “We need to make the office more visible and accessible to students and employees, partly through a move to a more central location and to a space better-configured for its purposes. We need to build on the foundation already laid in training all members of our community in their responsibilities to ensure a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment on our campus.”
Others, however, feel that the problem lies more in the failure of past Title IX Coordinators to actively support student activist voices on campus. Spayd explained, “The Title IX Office has a lot of power and could definitely do a lot of work with student groups, but we haven’t seen a lot of that in the past when Julian was here. Sometimes it’s felt like we need a fresh person in the position to change things structurally.”
Chenette noted, however, that one of Pereira’s biggest strengths as a candidate was her desire to provide that support to students, a quality both students and administrators can appreciate. “Rachel is deeply student-centered, in accordance with the College’s educational mission,” he remarked. “One of her top priorities after students arrive in January is to hold meet & greet sessions, so students can connect her name and face and help her understand more fully what they hope for from her and her office.” He continued, “Students should find her approachable, sensitive, and committed to fair processes and outcomes. She is engaged and passionate with a sensitivity and sense of humor that will be of great use in dealing with everyone on campus.”
Pereira echoed these sentiments herself. “I’m looking forward to serving in the tradition of Vassar being among the ‘first’ with our best practices in service and prevention to our students and the greater community,” wrote Pereira. “On a more personal note, the outpouring of kindness and support that I have received from those who will soon be my co-workers has been tremendous. From my first visit to the campus, I felt like I was amongst ‘family.’ ”
You had better hope that constitution remains intact.