I never would have guessed that a document with as innocuous a name as "Dear Colleague" would lead to me quitting my job, be featured in an episode of "Law and Order, SVU," and spark a national conversation about college sexual assault.
After some high profile scandals around the handling of assault cases at several colleges, the Department of Education decided that schools needed more guidance around issues of sexual harassment and violence. The "Dear Colleague" letter promised to clarify existing policies for the handling of sexual assault cases and set forth new expectations as well. Many universities all across the nation took note and moved quickly to revise their existing policies and procedures for handling these incredibly difficult cases.
As the dean in student affairs given the task of working with survivors (as well as the only female dean), I worked during that summer on a memo summarizing the letter and drafted a new sexual assault and relationship violence policy. When I presented my work to the upper level administrators, the response was less than enthusiastic. I was told that updating the policies wasn't an "immediate priority" but would happen sometime in the near future.
Months passed without any progress. A group of faculty and staff who met regularly to discuss interpersonal violence issues sent a letter to the Chancellor outlining our concerns and offering our expertise. We received a terse response back from university counsel politely telling us that they had it under control and that our help was not needed.
While my institution may have excelled at taking care of some of the basic needs of assault survivors, our track record on holding perpetrators accountable was abysmal at best. Few survivors were willing to take their cases before the student honor court, and even fewer cases resulted in a guilty verdict, much less any substantial penalty.
The “Dear Colleague” letter forced me to question the true intent behind all our of policies and procedures. I began to see how we were fundamentally failing not only survivors, but all female students on our campus. While my institution certainly no longer had any overt barriers for women, the myriad ways we mishandled sexual and relationship violence cases certainly hindered many women’s abilities to pursue their education. And I was part of the problem. I didn’t push hard enough for change. I didn’t educate survivors on their rights guaranteed to them by Title IX and the Clery Act. The students at my institution deserved better.
After a great deal of soul searching, I realized that I was not in a position to advance the changes that were needed. My workplace had become increasingly toxic, largely because I had become increasingly vocal about our failures in handling these cases. So I made the difficult decision to walk away from a career that that I loved.
As soon as I announced my resignation, I was approached by a student and a recent alum who were filing an Office of Civil Rights (OCR) complaint against the university over the handling of sexual assault cases. At first I told them I wasn't interested in joining as a complainant. I wanted to move on. But after learning of yet another mishandled case, I realized that I owed the students more. I knew that my joining the complaint as a former administrator, I gave the student claims credibility and increased the likelihood that the OCR would mount an investigation.
Our complaint attracted massive media attention. I had constant messages from reporters, a television crew showed up at my house. After weeks of the administration hiding behind denials and hiring outside consultants, the Chancellor announced that a task force with broad representation would be created to review and rewrite the sexual assault policy.
Students from dozens of other schools began contacting the young alumna who coordinated the complaint. The students had similar stories-administrations who ignored their cases and denied them basic services. Activists from many campuses began to mobilize online and soon OCR complaints were filed against several other schools. National media began running stories on college sexual assault, and finally, a “Special Victim’s Unit” episode aired featuring heavily dramatized excerpts from several of the cases. My “character” was a college psychologist who was torn between reporting the truth to the SVU detectives and keeping her job. Naturally, she told the truth, the bad administrators were arrested, and the survivors got the justice they deserved.
While sexual assault on campus won’t be wrapped up as quickly as a Law and Order episode, we’re finally started a national conversation. And while I no longer have my career, I have a place at the table.
Melinda Manning is the former assistant dean of students at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is currently pursuing a master's of Social Work and teaches higher education policy at UNC.
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