The term “Title IX,” which stems from the Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972 prohibiting sexual discrimination in educational institutions, has become a proxy for talking about everything regarding gender and sex discrimination. At Vassar, Title IX compliance falls under the auspice of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.
The current status of confidentiality and reporting on the EOAA page reads as follows: “At Vassar, some individuals and campus resources can offer confidentiality while others have specific obligations to respond when they receive a report of a crime or a campus policy violation. Most resources on campus fall in the middle of these two extremes. Neither the college nor the law requires them to divulge private information that is shared with them except in certain circumstances.”
However, the administration is currently aiming to shift this policy, in order to make all Vassar employees mandated Title IX reporters; the alteration will need to pass by a simple majority, likely at the October or November faculty meeting, in order to become standard policy. Should it be passed, all employees will receive training to be adequately equipped to respond appropriately to a potential Title IX case.
“We will be conducting training sessions for all members of our community on Title IX and responsible reporting, including how to respond to a report of a sexual assault and how to steer students to professional resources for support,” Interim President Jonathan Chenette described. VSA Chair of Student Affairs and Chair of Equity and Inclusion Cecilia Hoang ’18 agreed that good training will be necessary to a successful implementation of the policy. “[T]he reality of it is, not all professors are going to be equally prepared to have those really serious conversations with a student, a student who’s seeking support and care,” she noted. “[I]f you’re saying these professors are going to be resources now, and that they’re going to handle it right, make sure they handle it right.”
Vassar would be in good company with this policy shift. As Chenette observed, “Other [higher education] institutions have moved to designating faculty and almost all employees as responsible reporters. In our region, the following is a partial list of institutions designating all faculty as responsible reporters: Wesleyan, Bard College, Marist College, Mount Saint Mary College and Sarah Lawrence.”
The EOAA and other sexual violence prevention programs at Vassar have also been undergoing changes in recent semesters. In January 2016, Rachel Pereira joined the EOAA Office as the new Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and Title IX Coordinator. In May 2015, a group of faculty, staff and administrators were trained to participate in the Mentor In Violence Prevention (MVP) program. The EOAA works alongside MVP, Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention and other organizations and offices on campus to reduce incidences of and increase education about sexual violence and assault. “Our goal in all we do is to decrease the number of sexual assaults and instances of sexual misconduct that occur on campus and to keep our campus community safe. Our desire is that everyone on campus will work on concert to help us achieve these goals,” noted Interim Title IX Coordinator and Assistant Director of Equal Opportunity & Affirmative Action/ Title IX Investigator Brittney Denley in an emailed statement.
The College conducted a voluntary survey of all students in Spring 2015, called the Vassar College Campus Climate Survey, regarding Sexual Assault and Misconduct, Dating Violence, Stalking, and Vassar’s Title IX Processes and better known as the “What Happens Here” survey. After analysis, the results revealed that very few survivors of sexual assault file an official report with the College. According to that survey, just 10.3 percent of cisgender women, 6.3 percent of cisgender men and 25 percent of non-cisgender people surveyed filed reports with the EOAA. Furthermore, this does not take into account all of the potential survivors among the student body who did not respond to the survey. Additionally, of the 1,172 students who responded, only 60 identified as non-cisgender or did not respond to current gender identification.
This very low reporting rate was one of the reasons the administration decided to enact the new reporting policy. “The disproportion the campus climate survey documented between the number of cases of sexual assault indicated on the survey and the number reported to the Title IX Office was an important reason for considering changes to campus reporting policies, but not the only reason,” commented Chenette in an emailed statement.
The survey also shone a light on students’ satisfaction, or lack thereof, with the performance of the Title IX processes. In a section of the survey results report titled “Perceptions of Vassar’s Title IX Sexual Assault/Misconduct Procedures, Outcomes, and Information,” students ranked which services provided by the Title IX Office they thought were best fulfilled at the current moment. The results indicate that students consider reports filed by or against faculty and higher administrators more serious than reports filed by or against students.
The survey also revealed that students who participated in the poll have the most confidence in Title IX actions in categories such as “keeping information confidential,” “limited to those who need to know,” “taking a Title IX report or incident seriously” and “taking steps to assure the safety of those filing a complaint/report.” On the other hand, they reported low confidence in areas such as “conducting thorough and unbiased hearings,” “thorough and unbiased investigations,” “accurately determining what actually occurred” and “taking appropriate action(s) against perpetrators found responsible.”
While the survey provided some insight on how students feel they are being supported, it also served the purpose of getting numbers on these procedures and filings for the College. Hoang remarked, “[W]hat I really want to see from the institution is for them to figure out how they can provide institutional support for survivors that’s centered on their needs first and foremost, above the facts and figures of your reporting rates.” A member of CARES who wished to remain anonymous responded to the issue as well in an emailed statement, explaining their qualms about this policy change. They agreed that while the administration may have good intentions, the way they are proceeding with making change in the Title IX investigation process can be harmful to students. “CARES understands that the administration would like to increase reporting levels, and that this new policy is in response to the gross underreporting that occurs on college campuses,” they conceded. “However, instead of addressing the root of the problem that leads to underreporting (a Title IX process that historically retraumatizes survivors, keeps perpetrators on campus and ultimately serves the interests of the College), the administration is attempting to artificially milk reports in a way that will invariably stunt student healing and create an increasingly awkward student-professor relationship.”
Given the recent loss of confidential resources on campus, including the dissolution of CARES and TLC as on-call peer listening services, some students expressed concern that enforcing mandated reporting will further reduce survivors’ options. Hoang stressed the need for professional, confidential and safe confidants, saying, “I don’t know about you, but none of my friends are licensed social workers. If we’re saying we need institutional support, that’s what it means.”
Hoang argued that resources like this are essential to providing adequate support for survivors. “[T]his is a student life issue, because unfortunately there are so many survivors on our campus, and we’re seeing that more and more confidential and private resources are being taken away; first CARES and TLC and now this,” she explained. “So when those kinds of support services for survivors are dwindling, I’m just worried that there needs to be something put up in the place of those things that are now missing.”
The CARES representative asserted, “CARES is very concerned with the proposed change that would require all faculty to become mandated reporters. We believe that this new policy will limit academic freedom, personal healing and valuable faculty mentorship.” Hoang agreed, “[T]here’s a lot of reasons why survivors aren’t ready for the whole process right off the bat, or even sometimes ever, and that should be respected.”
Although most faculty will be made mandatory reporters, should the policy change be approved, administrators involved in these discussions maintain that this will not mean an end to confidential resources. “There will be specific exceptions of people to whom students may speak confidentially with no required reporting, including professionals in the Counseling Center, Religious and Spiritual Life and the SAVP Office,” assured Chenette.
In the case that this policy is adopted, a professor, administrator or other employee conversing with a student about an issue that they feel violates Title IX rights is required to inform the student with whom they are speaking that they will be contacting the Title IX Coordinator. However, this does not mean that a full investigation will proceed. The student will receive an email from the Title IX coordinators, with a list of resources they could seek out as well as details about how to proceed with filing an official investigation if desired. That process, as laid out on the EOAA website, follows these steps: report the incident; meet with a Title IX investigator; formal notice of investigation; formal resolution process; another meeting with a Title IX investigator; finally a Title IX hearing and afterwards an appeal, if necessary.
The VSA only learned about the potential change in a meeting with Chenette, and the information is not yet public knowledge among the student body. Hoang pointed out that the administration did not inform students of the possible change in policy until they were practically certain that they would present it for approval, which she believes is a recurring pattern of interaction between students and the administration. “I think that’s part of a bigger issue. If you compare that with how the smoking ban went–they did two years of surveys and they asked the campus what they wanted, they conferred with New York State health departments and that was a huge process and there was room for student feedback, even if they were going to make the decision all along.” She maintained that the VSA, as the representative voice for the student body, should have more input on these decisions. “Because we are meant to have a shared governance at this school, at least on paper, it does say that the VSA is supposed to have a stakes in how the school is run. That’s why the VSA is the way it is. So what we were saying in a lot of meetings [with administrators] is that, you can’t present these things as small changes even if they seem that way to you, because in reality both of these policy changes have a great influence on how actual student life is. That’s going to really impact how people are operating on this campus, for better or for worse.”
Representatives from the VSA has been meeting with administrators involved in the decision in the past few weeks, and will be meeting with others in the coming weeks. The relevant administrators include Denley, Chenette, Dean of the College Christopher Roellke and Anthropology Professor and Faculty Chair of the EOAA Colleen Cohen.