Vanderbilt University's football program tweeted an image Thursday declaring that its players "don't need your permission," prompting a backlash on Twitter. Earlier this year two Vanderbilt football players were found guilty of gang-raping another student. The trial was later ruled a mistrial on a technicality, and the case will go to trial again at a later date. "We are relentless, tough and intelligent, and …" the since-deleted tweeted read, followed by an image that stated, "we don't need your permission." Users on Twitter criticized the tweet as tone-deaf and upsetting. The university later responded, apologizing for the tweet.
"It's not a comment about sexual assault," the university stated. "Sex without permission is always wrong and not accepted. Sexual assault is not acceptable at Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt athletics and Vanderbilt football."
The White House this week hosted officials from business schools and businesses for a meeting on expanding opportunities for women. The discussion covered the recruiting, training and retention of leaders as well as the importance of policies that work for families, according to a fact sheet from the White House.
The administration's Council of Economic Advisers released a report to set the stage for the event. It described how women comprise only 5 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. In addition, female graduates of M.B.A. programs earn 30 percent less than their male counterparts after five years, the report said, and 60 percent less after 10 years.
In connection with the meeting, 45 business schools have agreed to a set of principles to help women succeed through school and their careers.
Alison Davis-Blake, dean of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, attended the White House event. She said the "collective action" taken by the 45 institutions was rare for the relatively competitive business school sector. Davis-Blake's institution last year began its own initiative to encourage women to seek careers in finance.
The title “Dean of Students” is a throwback, and I’ve always liked that. When I found myself holding that title, first at a large university and then at a small college, I imagined myself as a link in a chain going back more than a hundred years, serious yet wry educators staring down a miscreant freshman one minute and comforting a lonely sophomore the next.
I liked that it made clear my highest priority: students. Whatever else might have been swirling around a campus, I knew that my primary focus, my raison d’être, was to tend to the welfare of my students.
I sometimes joked that a more accurate title was “Dean of Students … and Their Parents,” given the amount of time I spent soothing and advising parents, or sometimes getting yelled at by them. Sometimes, I told my colleagues, my title was “Dean of the Student,” as a crisis sharpened my focus on a single individual in need of complicated assistance, temporarily pushing all other tasks to the side.
Mostly, I would remind myself, I was “Dean of All Students,” a title that kept me centered on the need for objectivity, for support of a student regardless of his or her actions, for fairness and openness and refusal to take sides in a student-versus-student situation. This was never easy when it came to matters of student conduct, when I needed to balance the interests of one student with another’s, or the good of a student versus the good of the community.
It was, though, what I signed on for in my pursuit of an education and a career. I tried to put myself in the shoes of each student I encountered, remembering my own undergraduate indiscretions, and in doing so, I found a degree of patience with my students that allowed me to guide them, with some degree of equanimity, through very difficult situations.
In sexual assault cases, the numbers of which grew during my nine years as a dean of students, this was particularly critical. In a case where one student charges another with sexual misconduct, it is clear from the outset that no one is going to “win.” The existence of the charge itself is the middle, not the start, of a story that began days or weeks or sometimes months before, and the harm -- regardless of what might have happened in the actual situation -- has occurred and cannot be undone.
No winners. Many losers. My job, upon hearing of a situation (whether or not it was heading to a conduct hearing or a report to law enforcement), was not to take sides but to remain as clearheaded and objective as possible. Calling myself Dean of All Students -- the accused and the accuser -- was my reminder to myself as I began the process of overseeing the institutional response: the investigation, the support, the parents’ questions, the community outcry (if there was one).
I didn’t investigate: I deployed skilled people to do that. I didn’t advocate: I assigned staff to those roles. I didn’t judge: I relied on smart, thoughtful, compassionate colleagues to find whatever truth might be there in the midst of accusations and counteraccusations.
My job was to protect a process that often felt like it was under siege by parents, lawyers, friends of the students involved, faculty and staff members who had an interest in the case. I stood at the figurative door and held off all those who would interfere, impede or otherwise compromise a process we had worked hard to create, so that my colleagues could do their work and my students could be treated fairly.
When it was over, my job became managing the fallout, whatever it was, which meant working with students, faculty and staff, parents, and sometimes alumni to repair any damage that might have been done. I protected the confidentiality of the process. I assured the staff who had done their jobs that their very hard work was appreciated. I reassured students that we always -- always -- took these matters seriously, and that they needed to trust this process and the people involved.
It was a community matter, and we sorted through it -- imperfectly, perhaps, but with as much integrity as possible -- as a community. We hurt and we healed and we moved on to the next event or crisis or commencement, comforted by the rhythm of the academic year, which always brought a respite not too far off.
Then the world started to change. The community in which I did my work was breached by those on the outside who understood very little of what my day-to-day work entailed. In 2011, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sent a Dear Colleague letter clarifying its expectations for how we were to handle sexual assault.
I read the letter, nodding at some parts and shaking my head at others. It felt like a group of well-intended but misinformed interlopers had shown up to tell me how to do a job I had done for years. Absent any input from people in jobs like mine, this group of lawyers and policy specialists created a blueprint for an already existing structure, disregarding the years of effort undertaken to build it. We needed some renovation. They were requiring a gut rehab.
Why did this happen? There were institutions that had not treated their students well, and quite possibly there were some incompetent people at the helm of those institutions’ efforts. But many of my counterparts and I had been doing the hard work of managing these cases for years and knew a lot about what worked well and what needed changing. Didn’t our judgment, our input, count for anything?
For weeks, I pored over the various documents available online -- letters of agreement and results of investigations that the Office of Civil Rights made public. I was disturbed by the ways some institutions had ignored longstanding harassment and tolerated truly unsafe conditions. I believed they were in the minority, but the existence of any undermined confidence in us all. I made my peace with that, and with renewed determination to do this important work well, helped my campus examine and improve our policies, our outreach, our educational efforts.
I started talking more openly with parents during orientation, encouraged our college to hire a skilled Title IX coordinator without other time-consuming responsibilities, successfully applied for a grant from the Department of Justice to enhance our efforts. In short, I did everything I could to do my job well and help my campus support the students in my care. I even stopped griping about the Dear Colleague letter and tried to see it as it was probably intended: a rebuke to some, a reminder to all of the importance of our work and the students for whom we are responsible.
But clouds continued to gather on the horizon. For reasons that baffled us all, OCR released a list of colleges and universities under investigation for alleged Title IX complaints, despite the fact that these institutions had not yet been found to be in violation of anything. It was merely a list of institutions in the OCR queue to be investigated for what at least one student believed was a failure of the institution to meet its Title IX obligations related to sexual harassment.
The fact that these were either open investigations or had not even been fully shared with the institution didn't matter. Colleges and universities were pilloried in the press, their administrators accused of “covering up” something that they themselves had perhaps not even fully investigated yet. The reasons for releasing this list were unclear, but the damage was indisputable. The presumption of our role -- student advocates -- changed, and we were now presumed to be standing in the way of student safety and accountability, two things our profession holds dear.
Media coverage, some by the best newspapers and magazines in the country, was constant, each reporter looking for an example from a campus to use as the lead-in to the story. Blogs and other online posts and comments became an increasingly powerful mode of “discussion,” which devolved into accusations of incompetence and cover-ups by allegedly self-interested colleges and universities.
Meanwhile, on our campuses, sexual assaults were still happening, and we were still responding to them as capably as we could. I still stood at the door, trying to protect a process that served all of my students in a way I could still call “educational,” because that was what I was -- an educator -- but the outside groups demanding access, explanation and redress had grown, dwarfing the community I was charged with protecting.
In the space of a year, it felt like my work had gone from being appropriately scrutinized by the members of my community who knew me and cared about our students and who had every right to expect me to answer to them, to being the object of uninformed opinions expressed by people who couldn’t have found my campus on a map.
In addition to the lawyers of OCR and DOJ, my counterparts across the country and I had to worry that each decision we made in a sexual misconduct matter would be made public, mostly by social media, vilified by clueless pundits, turned into slick justifications by “advocates,” would attract the attention of one of the high-powered lawyers making the rounds of cable TV talk shows and press conferences, and become the incident that would end our careers, or at the very least, sully our reputations. Federal laws and our own deeply rooted professional guidelines prohibited us from fighting back publicly, even if we wanted to. We remained silent while the battle raged around us.
But I found myself thinking, I didn’t sign on for this. Unlike professional athletes or musical performers or reality TV stars, people who become deans of students are not usually interested in the spotlight. Our work goes on behind closed doors where the hearts of students are laid bare and need to be repaired, or in campus forums where our students get to question our decisions and we can defend them, or change them. These things happen in the context of community, and that is what provides meaning and validity. That is how change, and improvement, occur.
And now our work is the subject of bloggers and activists who are so driven by agendas that they cannot consider an alternative viewpoint. Our efforts to serve our campuses are being pushed aside by the cottage industry of “consultants” and lawyers who prey on the fear of presidents and boards, worried that their institution will be the next one featured in The New York Times.
Did we need to be challenged about sexual assault response? Yes, and we were, and we worked hard to improve.
Did we need to be better as a profession? Yes. I have never believed I had it all figured out, and don’t know any other deans of students who would make that claim. But when swept up in a tidal wave of uncivil and often uninformed opinion offering, unfounded accusations, questionable Title IX complaints and spurious litigation, it is hard to do anything other than keep from drowning. Trying to improve one’s stroke at that moment is impossible.
Eventually, I found myself thinking of a new variation on my title. I had become, I realized, the Dean of Sexual Assault. Every case became an all-out crisis, and the cases were coming more frequently as awareness grew. Some cases were clearly appropriate uses of the process, while others were not, but it didn’t matter. I had little time to do the other parts of a job that has many other parts. I was consumed by situations involving two or three or four students and had hardly any time left for the rest of those on my campus who needed and deserved my attention.
Very little has been written about or by those of us who work on the front lines of this issue, and when something is written, like Rolling Stone’s travesty of journalism last November, we are often portrayed as unfeeling idiots who care about nothing: not our students, not our institutions, not the law. Of course, the reverse is true: we care about each, and nothing trumps the affection we feel for our students. That affection is what made me so proud, so honored, to have a title that made clear to everyone what my first priority was, every single day I went to work.
It’s a title I no longer have. When I realized I didn’t want to be Dean of Sexual Assault, I decided to step away from a profession and identity I had treasured. When it became clear to me that being Dean of All Students was no longer possible without the constant threat of litigation, media coverage and Internet trolls, I thought it best to be dean of none. I hope there are others in this noble work who can weather this storm and emerge on the other side of the tumult. I won’t be among them, but I understand their anguish, and I wish them well.
Lee Burdette Williams is an educator and writer in Burlington, Vt.
Submitted by Aden Hayes on August 6, 2015 - 3:00am
Just over two years ago, I wrote to the campus community to reveal the dire financial situation of our college. It is painful to recall the details, but revenues were falling, we were in serious debt and we had no viable plan for paying off what we owed in order to move forward as an institution.
After 24 months of difficult decisions and sometimes painful implementations, today I am both pleased and proud to tell you that St. Bridget’s is well on the way to reversing our indebtedness and putting the college on a solid financial footing. As part of this process, we are modernizing and streamlining the college to face the rest of the 21st century.
It has not been easy, and I thank all members of the community who took the time to understand our situation, contributed ideas and supported the sometimes painful, radical change that was necessary to save our college.
Part 1 of This Series
In an earlier essay, Aden Hayes
suggested that many small
colleges are kidding themselves
about their financial viability, and
imagined the conversation they
should be having. Read more.
In June 2015, the Board of Trustees met to discuss our very difficult situation and to make major decisions. It was decided -- correctly, I think -- that the college needed fundamental changes, and not simply a fund-raising effort to “Save St. Bridget’s.”
At its meeting two years ago the board recognized that we faced major challenges and felt that all of us -- including me -- needed advice, counsel and guidance in achieving the turnaround we all sought.
The board approved the retention of an experienced, nonprofit consultancy to help us strategize. But it was the board’s call to the entire college community to step forward with ideas, with energy and with inspiration that really set us on the right track.
With the help of faculty members, administration, students and our strategic consultancy partners, we have together achieved marvelous results:
Outreach. Our first goal was to reverse declining enrollments and a low yield rate. Of the five administrative positions that were eliminated as part of our restructuring plan, three professionals transitioned to the newly expanded and fortified office of St. Bridget’s Outreach.
The initiatives undertaken by this office are most impressive: presentations at more than 200 high schools in our state and in other parts of the Northeast; a highly successful online information campaign involving social media; the naming of five St. Bridget’s seniors as brand ambassadors with responsibility for outreach not just through local high schools but via clubs, sports teams, young enterprise projects and other affinity groupings; the establishment of a permanent representative of the college in the largest city in our state with responsibility for communication to high schools, interaction with media, assistance to college personnel and students when they visit the city, and serving as institutional ambassador.
Study abroad. Eighteen months ago we transferred our tiny study abroad program from London -- where it competed with nearly 80 other U.S. college and university programs -- to Sanya, on Hainan Island, China, a beautiful, small university city. We have partnered with Quingzhou University, and changed our model from exclusively classroom study to intensive Mandarin and Chinese culture classes combined with internships at local companies and organizations. This has proved to be a very popular option, and we have moved from barely breaking even with our own students in London to hosting young people from seven U.S. colleges in our new program, set to increase to 12 partner colleges in 2018.
In addition to being much more practically oriented than the London classroom and library experience, our Sanya program represents a significant source of income for St. Bridget’s and is on target to position us among the leaders in experiential education in China.
Teacher training. Working closely with our nonprofit consultancy and the St. Bridget’s Education Department, our education major has received a significant upgrade. Students now do a full major in an academic field, in addition to their education courses and teacher training. This has resulted in a significant strengthening of both the Education Department and the major. We have partnered with six local school districts to receive our students as practice teachers in their final year of study, and of the 41 St. Bridget’s seniors who did their practice teaching this year in our partner school districts, 35 have received job offers to start full time in August.
Part-time adult learners. We have established an office dedicated to adult learners from the surrounding community, including active-duty service personnel and spouses at nearby Fort George Patton. We have applied to be placed on the approved list of institutions under the Military Tuition Assistance Act, whereby the Department of Defense pays tuition and fees directly to the college, for approved courses.
Using the validation and accreditation criteria of Excelsior College, we have begun to accept credits for learning done outside the traditional, four-year residential college system. This will be especially important for our adult learners seeking a St. Bridget’s degree.
Online learning. St. Bridget’s has joined the Liberal Arts Consortium for Online Learning, and we have incorporated Coursera content into two of our highest-enrollment courses, American History and The American System of Justice. Plans are underway to use Coursera in at least five more popular courses, which will produce significant savings in instruction costs in those courses, and free up faculty to provide a wider range of courses in their specialties, or for other teaching and administrative duties on campus.
Equally important, Professors Smith and Higgenbottom of the St. Bridget’s Biology Department are at work with colleagues from two other regional liberal arts college to produce a complete, online Fundamentals of Biology course aimed at nontraditional learners. This initiative, and its spin-offs, may bring significant revenue to our college.
Centralized purchasing. We have partnered with an agency whose sole job is purchasing for more than 100 college campuses across the Northeast. With their economies of scale, they are able to receive price discounts that we could never achieve on our own. As a result, academic departments are no longer responsible for their own purchasing, and everything from paper to toner to ballpoint pens is now uniform across campus. As soon as stocks are exhausted and need to be replaced, this will run to whiteboards, laser pointers and other durable goods.
Generating nontraditional revenue. We have sold All Saints Hall to a Singapore investment fund and leased it back at a stable rent for a period of 10 years with an option for a further 25 years. And we plan to sell two more college buildings within the next year. This initiative alone is programmed to bring in $2.5 million in the period through June 2018.
Outsourcing. We have contracted for many campus services, including landscaping and snow removal, so that we pay for these services only as we need them. We have sold all landscaping and snow removal equipment to the contracted firm, generating revenue in the five figures.
Enrollment upgrade. Working with our consultant partners, we have upgraded our enrollment software and streamlined the application process. Prospective students now automatically get individualized follow-up communication tailored to their academic interests and are put into contact with faculty in the areas where they might study. All this has meant a much more personalized application and acceptance process, and I am pleased to say that this past spring we admitted approximately the same number of students as we did two years ago, but the yield rose from 35 to 68 percent -- a significant increase in the number of students who have committed to St. Bridget’s for the coming fall.
Our streamlining has necessitated some difficult decisions that affected our community:
We have closed two academic programs that had been underenrolled for years -- including the interdisciplinary program in Northeast Studies, which competed directly with a similar program at the nearby state university. Three departments had their majors eliminated -- German, anthropology and creative writing -- and were merged into one service department providing 100- and 200-level courses to fulfill the college’s general education requirements.
Nine faculty positions were eliminated, and some of these faculty members found other academic jobs outside St. Bridget’s. For six who did not, the college contracted a professional counseling and coaching service specializing in transitions from the academic to the private sector.
Those are some of the initiatives we have undertaken in the past two years. But we are not stopping there. By June of 2018 I hope to announce more major changes, at least in the following areas:
We will be merging all foreign languages into a single department. At least two foreign language majors will be eliminated, and these languages will become service departments. They will take the initiative to partner with stronger departments to add language skills to business, education, psychology, criminal justice and possibly other majors. I emphasize that this initiative must be led from the departments themselves, not directed from my office.
The provost, the Academic Affairs Committee and I will begin to look at the research interests and production of faculty members, particularly in the humanities, with a view to encouraging these interests to become more closely aligned with teaching duties. We want research to result in more effective teachers, and research at St. Bridget’s should be aimed, first and foremost, at improving instruction on our campus, and these priorities will be taken into consideration in tenure and promotion decisions.
Research and publication will benefit faculty members at other institutions only insofar as their aims, like ours, are laser focused on the highest-quality teaching performance.
Under the guidance of our consultants, we are looking into joining an online library consortium, using the collection of Johns Hopkins University, one of the top-ranked institutions in the nation. This will reduce the need for new book purchases and eliminate subscriptions to very expensive scientific journals. For the time being, the current library will continue to operate as a basic study resource with a skeletal staff.
As I said earlier, we plan to sell and then lease back two more buildings on campus and are in the process of determining which those will be.
We are also determined to move the few St. Bridget’s sports teams still competing in Division II to Division III. Athletic scholarships will be eliminated, and we plan to apply the savings achieved to strengthen intramural and club sports, with a view to participation by a maximum numbers of students, at a wide range of skill levels.
At the suggestion of Professor Kim of the Computer Science Department, we have decided to change the configuration of several college office buildings to free up space. Although this is still in the planning stages, it is our vision that only heads of administrative departments and chairs of academic departments will have private offices. All other staff will share open spaces for university-related duties, and they will be assigned desks based upon need. Conference rooms will be available for professors’ office hours as well as other meetings, and these will be assigned on a full-semester or one-time basis. Following a trend in the IT and other industries, the college is contemplating a one-time subvention for faculty to set up home offices.
There will be more initiatives for the improvement and streamlining of our college, and I look forward to working with you on these, in due course. Meanwhile, I again thank the entire St. Bridget’s College community for its help, support and enthusiasm in our turnaround.
Aden Hayes is executive director of the Foundation for Practical Education.