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Beyond the survey findings, the panel also explored longer-term trends: how prevention education has evolved in the past decade, for example, and what colleges have learned along the way. The forum was co-hosted by The Chronicle’s Sara Lipka, an assistant managing editor, and Sarah Brown, a senior reporter, and the panel included Elizabeth Conklin, associate vice president for institutional equity, access, and belonging at Yale University; Tremayne D. Robertson, an assistant dean of students at the University of Virginia; Elizabeth Seney, senior associate director and Title IX coordinator in the Office of Institutional Equity at the University of Michigan; and Kim Webb, director of the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center at Washington University in St. Louis and president of the American College Health Association.
Here are key insights from the discussion, along with survey data, video clips, and answers to questions posed by the audience.
Effective Practices and Signs of Improvement
To determine how colleges handle sexual-misconduct prevention and response — and how they interpret the law — The Chronicle conducted an email survey, collecting responses from Title IX coordinators and other administrators representing 567 institutions. (Listen to a narration of findings below, and see data here.) The survey asked them to look back to April 2011, when the U.S. Department of Education published a “Dear Colleague” letter spelling out colleges’ obligations under Title IX, marking a new phase of federal enforcement and national attention to how colleges resolve students’ reports of sexual harassment and assault.
Over all, most campus officials are very confident that their institutions have improved prevention (70 percent) and response (75 percent) in the last nine years. And they are generally confident — if a little less so — that they can continue to do so going forward. In terms of compliance with Title IX, the levels of confidence are lower. Just under half of campus leaders (46 percent) are very confident that their institutions have been in compliance with the law since 2011, and slightly more than half (54 percent) are confident that they can continue to comply as rules change.
Q&A: Who should make final decisions in cases of alleged sexual misconduct?
Some colleges require a majority vote to find a student responsible; others require a unanimous decision. At colleges that don’t use panels, a hearing officer often decides. Institutions may tap the dean of students to serve in that role or train professors or other administrators. Many campuses have chosen to outsource the position to a lawyer or a retired judge. If a student found responsible decides to appeal the decision, a different panel or campus official must handle the appeals process. It used to be common for the person investigating a case to also decide it, but the new regulations prohibit that approach.
As for how institutions measure improvement, the number of reports of sexual misconduct is a common gauge. If it goes up, that can actually be a good sign. The thinking is that if more students are comfortable coming forward, then they may feel that the campus climate is supportive and trust the resolution process. Some officials look for an initial increase in reports followed by a drop, presumably as fewer incidents occur. Studying data from campus-climate surveys is another approach. Typically the incidence of sexual misconduct that students share in those surveys is higher than what they report formally. Some colleges aim for decreased incidence in climate surveys, or less of a gap between that figure and the number of formal reports, which suggests less underreporting.
To track improvement on institutional response in particular, college leaders point to changes they have made, as well as fewer or no lawsuits by students over sexual-misconduct cases and fewer appeals of the outcomes of those cases. In open-response questions, campus leaders often cited feedback from students as a factor in gauging improvement. Those answers included students’ general awareness and understanding, satisfaction, and greater use of services.
Among the most common steps institutions have taken to deal with sexual misconduct are revising policies, hiring or appointing a Title IX coordinator, reforming the investigation process, holding mandatory training (for students, staff, and faculty members), and supporting bystander intervention, a type of prevention that encourages students to step in if they see a potentially risky situation. On the whole, campus officials were more likely to say they had taken certain steps than to report that those steps were effective. In other words, the levels of perceived effectiveness were generally not very high. Changing the standard of evidence for accused students to be found responsible was fairly uncommon (17 percent of institutions said they had done it), perhaps because many had not set a standard of evidence before 2011. But that move rated most effective, followed by introducing anonymous online reporting, holding mandatory staff training, increasing survivor/victim advocacy, and conducting more than one climate survey.
Q&A: What implications do the new regulations have for restorative-justice programs?
In some cases, the students and facilitator might sit in a room together, and in others, they might enter into a written agreement, which could require a letter of apology, a training program, or other steps to remedy the harm caused. Restorative justice does not lead to a decision on whether someone violated campus policies.
Because the standard Title IX adjudication has grown more court-like, experts predict that students will increasingly choose another route. At the University of Michigan, where hearings and cross-examination became mandatory in 2018, the Title IX office has seen many more students who want to pursue “adaptable resolution.”
The greatest barrier to progress that campus leaders identified was confusion over changing federal guidance and regulations (the latest rules were released in May, after the survey, and went into effect in August). Beyond that, responding institutions cited scarce resources, students’ lack of education about sex and healthy relationships, and fear of litigation or legal liability. Among the barriers that campus leaders mentioned in open responses was the concern that institutions focus on legal compliance at the expense of students’ needs.
Adapting to the Pandemic and New Rules
The timing of the federal regulations on Title IX has been a challenge for colleges, as the Covid-19 pandemic forced them to operate remotely and focus attention on the online pivot and public health. In the event last month, panelists described a chaotic spring and summer as they scrambled to comply with 2,000 pages of new rules in three months. The chief difficulties they cited: the inability to vet changes in person, problems engaging with the campus community, and budget constraints.
Many institutions, given the diminished opportunity for campus discussion and the accelerated time frame, made a distinction between what the regulations allow — for example, scaling back mandatory reporting requirements for employees who become aware of an alleged incident of sexual misconduct — and what they require, and opted to focus on the latter, said Elizabeth Conklin, who, before moving to Yale this summer, spent close to nine years as the Title IX and ADA coordinator and associate vice president in the Office of Institutional Equity at the University of Connecticut. She described as common the decision to keep a mandatory reporting policy, also known as a “responsible employee framework,” in place. In addition, she said, college leaders have emphasized to their communities what has not changed, and tried to reinforce the point that help is, and will remain, available. “You don’t have to become a timeline expert and determine whether your matter falls within the regulations,” she said, echoing a common message. “Come to us, come to the offices. We will provide support.”
The University of Michigan opted to designate as interim the policies it introduced in August, said Elizabeth Seney, to allow for additional work on a new umbrella approach to sexual misconduct for students, faculty, staff, and third parties. In particular, she said, how the new regulations apply to employees has significant impacts and needs to be carefully considered. She would also like to gather feedback from all parties to cases, including witnesses, on what it feels like to go through a process — what’s helpful and what’s not. “As prescriptive as some aspects of the regulations are,” she said, “there are a variety of ways that these things can be implemented, and there are a number of places where schools have the ability to really make their policies and procedures their own.” To that end, presenting to various stakeholder groups and seeking their input and questions will be vital, she said.
While budget cuts are a reality now at most institutions, the new regulatory framework presents an opportunity to re-evaluate campus efforts, Seney pointed out. That re-evaluation may lead to a decision to devote more resources to this area, she said, to ensure that policies and practices are both legally compliant and consistent with institutional values. “This is really important work,” she said. “Many institutions recognize that.”
Many collaborations are underway, Conklin added, regionally and nationally. She described how free and low-cost resources — such as training programs offered and guidance documents maintained by the State University of New York’s Student Conduct Institute — can help colleges interpret the new rules.
Shifts in Prevention Education
Colleges’ efforts to prevent sexual misconduct depend on understanding the campus climate, engaging students, and promoting practices like bystander intervention.
Gathering students’ perspectives is crucial, said Washington University’s Kim Webb. Listening sessions, anonymous forms on campus websites, and an advisory committee of students can all guide an institution’s prevention education and suggest what else is needed. “We’re continually learning more,” she said, about the nuances of student life and how to make prevention efforts more relevant. That feedback has led the university, for example, to expand bystander-intervention programs. “Really engaging our students is key for us,” she said. For institutions that have not conducted campus-climate surveys or done so regularly, Webb recommended looking at data from the Association of American Universities, representing more than 180,000 students nationally.
Q&A: How effective are prevention programs?
Green Dot, a popular bystander-intervention program, taps students as peer educators and emphasizes the idea that preventing violence is everyone’s responsibility. A 2018 study found that Green Dot training helped students become more comfortable intervening on behalf of their peers, and led to lower victimization rates for women and lower perpetration rates for men who went through the program. (Still, the study cautioned that more research was needed to evaluate whether Green Dot could actually reduce incidence.)
Another promising approach is empowerment self-defense, which combines physical tactics with instruction on speaking up and acting assertively. Such programs often draw criticism for placing the burden on women to protect themselves, but research on one such program, Flip the Script, found that college women who went through it were half as likely as their peers to experience sexual assault.
Violence prevention is another important component of this work, said the University of Virginia’s Tremayne Robertson. Such programs are more meaningful, he said, when they give young men permission to speak candidly and to be themselves. In the last decade, Webb pointed out, more campus dialogue about intersections of identity; about violence against marginalized communities, including transgender students; and about mental health has created opportunities for “merging prevention work with anti-racism and anti-depression work.”
Operating remotely during the pandemic has posed a challenge to prevention education. Regularly posting short messages on social media can help, said Webb, as well as directing students to as many resources as possible, including virtual programs, speakers, and mental-health support.
Lessons for Campus Culture
Colleges have built complex systems to handle sexual misconduct and comply with Title IX. How can they adapt some of those approaches — and that philosophy — to other areas? “Some schools are hearing students say, ‘I understand where to go and what the resources are for our Title IX issues, but where to go for anything else, like discrimination or harassment based on race or disability or religion, is less clear to me,’” Conklin said. “That has told a lot of us that we have some work to do.”
Colleges should consider connecting sexual-misconduct prevention with any anti-racism work underway, she said, or with any campaigns against other forms of discrimination and harassment. There is a continuing need for “clear policy, clear resources, clear procedures, and clear training that links these concepts together,” said Conklin. “This is a moment where we can all be thinking about institutional culture and risk factors far beyond just Title IX and sexual misconduct.”
Training is important but complicated, she said. “Done badly, it can actually do more harm than good.” The key is to approach departments individually, she said, to understand their particular cultures and respond to their needs. More colleges may also look to develop alternative dispute resolution, including restorative-justice practices, as another option for students who don’t want to pursue a formal Title IX investigation and hearing, Conklin and Seney said.
By supporting peer educators and providing opportunities for group dialogue, colleges can help students grapple with sexual misconduct and other issues and relate them to their own lives. An important element of that, said Robertson, is social norming, which helps students develop a clearer picture of their classmates’ beliefs and experiences, in place of dangerous stereotypes or exaggerations. That can happen in real time, he said, with engagement tools like Mentimeter to show how students are reacting to a presentation on sexual misconduct or gender identity. And these days, conversations led by peer educators in breakout rooms on Zoom allow students to share feelings and insecurities with one another. “Students are certainly much more receptive to folks that look like them,” he said, “and that they believe have had a similar experience.” Student programs also need to be sensitive and responsive, he said, and “take into account the cultural realities of all types of people.”
Past prevention efforts may have fallen short on that count, said Webb. Many programs are heteronormative and geared toward people who identify as white, she said. “We’re really trying to look at that and rewrite the script and better address the needs of our students, and not try to impose a specific curriculum on everyone.”
What’s fundamental to improving sexual-misconduct prevention and response, the panelists emphasized, is regularly soliciting students’ feedback. Conklin described taking notes as a student involved in a case at the University of Connecticut pointed to campus websites to show what confused her about how to proceed. In a focus group, Conklin heard why, in the first email the university sent after a report of an incident, the opening sentence was having an unintended effect. Robertson emphasized the value of building relationships with many different student groups. Over time, said Webb, demonstrating that college leaders are listening and responding to students’ concerns is vital.