Virginia Military Institute Agrees to Step Up Protections Under Title IX

May 10, 2014

An agreement between the Virginia Military Institute and the U.S. Department of Education to change what the government found to be a sexually hostile climate for female cadets is the latest sign of the government’s tougher stance and wider sweep on Title IX enforcement, two legal advisers said over the weekend.

The 26-page letter the department’s Office for Civil Rights sent to VMI is filled with specific strategies for complying with the federal gender-equity law. If colleges don’t already have an administrator devoted full time to that job, they probably should, said Peter F. Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University.

Friday’s announcement of the sweeping VMI agreement follows on the heels of the Obama administration’s new guidelines for combating sexual assault on campuses, including a 52-point Q&A and recommendations from the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault.

"The sheer volume of information you need to be monitoring today is staggering," said Mr. Lake, who serves as a legal consultant to colleges on sexual assault and other issues.

In the case of VMI, the Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, found that the institute had violated Title IX by engaging in sex discrimination and failing to promptly and equitably resolve complaints of sexual harassment and assault. Women were subjected, it said, to a sexually hostile climate "in the barracks and in the classroom." It also faulted VMI’s policies on pregnant and parenting cadets. OCR negotiated with the university on a series of corrective measures, including changes that will allow those students to remain enrolled. The changes took effect last month.

It also found that the institute’s tenure, promotion, and sabbatical processes, which the institute has since agreed to revise, discriminated against female faculty members. The agreement calls for the institute to clarify the role of the dean of the faculty and the sources of information the dean can use in making tenure and promotion recommendations.

One incident the government investigated involved how the institute handled a female cadet’s report that a staff member had sexually assaulted her.

'A Basic Obligation'

"All members of the VMI community must be able to live, study, and work in a safe environment," Catherine E. Lhamon, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a written statement. "Protecting students and employees from sexual assault is a basic obligation of every educational institution, including the ones that provide military education, and I am thrilled that VMI has agreed to take necessary corrective steps going forward."

VMI said it had agreed, with reservations, to sign the resolution agreement in order to "put an end to this six-year investigation."

In a statement, it said it was "profoundly disappointed" by the findings, given the steps it has taken over the last six years to respond to the office’s concerns.

Those actions, which the government called on the institute to continue or expand on, include putting in place "consent and respect training," alcohol-abuse education, a revised Title IX grievance procedure, and a requirement that employees report all known incidents of sexual assault. The institute was also instructed to conduct annual assessments of the climate for cadets, faculty members, and staff members.

During the course of the investigation, "VMI honestly strove to address all incidents at the institute with transparency, due process, fairness, and care," the university said. "The focus we have placed—and continue to place—on the values of civility, discipline, and respect makes our campus more safe, not less so."

The institute, whose previously all-male admissions policy was struck down in a 1996 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, said it was "committed to providing a safe environment in which cadets can learn, in which faculty members can teach, and in which staff members can support the institute’s mission."

With this latest settlement under Title IX, the government appears to be expanding the scope of its regulatory enforcement, said Gina M. Smith, a former sex-crimes prosecutor who now serves as a consultant to colleges. For those responsible for monitoring their institutions’ compliance, she said, the VMI agreement and similar directives have created "a tsunami wave, one right after another after another."