Biden Appointee Provokes Mixed Feelings

Supporters in the legal and LGBTQ communities are thrilled she will be acting assistant secretary of the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Sexual assault survivors say she's the wrong person for the job.

January 29, 2021
 
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Suzanne Goldberg is protested by student activists in her law class at Columbia University.

When the Biden administration appointed Suzanne Goldberg, a Columbia University law professor and top university administrator, to oversee civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education last week, some civil rights advocates believed it signaled a new era of federal protections for LGBTQ students and a revival of policies requiring colleges to respond to and prevent sexual assaults on campus.

Survivors of campus assault, who saw regulatory protections created by the Obama administration stripped away by the Trump administration, were optimistic that under President Biden they could again expect their colleges to be held accountable for promptly investigating their assault complaints and punishing those responsible for sexual misconduct.

The expectations have gotten complicated. Goldberg's appointment as acting assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights, the agency that oversees implementation of Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination at federally funded institutions, has some former Columbia students and survivors of sexual assault revisiting her tumultuous history as executive vice president of university life, a job she held from 2015 until last week. The position encompassed student affairs and disciplinary processes, diversity and inclusion, and Title IX policies. The former students say they were not well-served by Goldberg; they're now questioning her fitness for the government role. 

For these alumnae, former campus activists with the sexual assault prevention group No Red Tape, seeing Goldberg ascend to the high ranks of the federal government renewed their outrage over what they describe as Columbia's mishandling of their sexual assault complaints.

Amelia Roskin-Frazee, a former Columbia student, said Goldberg oversaw “problematic” policies that were unfair to, and failed to protect, sexual assault survivors and LGBTQ students in particular.

Roskin-Frazee was part of a group of students who protested Goldberg while she taught a law class in 2017.

“She was a primary figure to the trauma and emotional damage and the work we had to undo at Columbia,” said Roskin-Frazee, who recently resolved a lawsuit against the university claiming administrators, including Goldberg, failed to act on her reported assault.

“On paper” Goldberg appears to be a great selection for a civil rights position in the department, especially considering her advocacy on behalf the LGBTQ community, said Roskin-Frazee, who identifies as queer. But the experiences she and other survivors lived through at the university prove otherwise, she said.

Supporters of Goldberg paint a different picture of her. They describe her as “brilliant” and insist she's “ideal” for the job. They pointed to her experience as a college administrator and long legal career as a champion for LGBTQ people, which began about three decades ago at the legal defense and education fund for Lambda Legal, the nation’s oldest legal advocacy organization for LGBTQ people. Goldberg identifies as lesbian, and the cases she worked on for the organization cemented into law protections for LGBTQ people that were nonexistent at the time, said Jenny Pizer, law and policy director at Lambda Legal and a longtime friend of Goldberg.

Goldberg worked on one of the first cases that established asylum protections for LGBTQ people facing persecution in their home countries due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, and she helped to solidify rights for LGBTQ people in domestic partnerships, such as their ability to receive health care benefits through a spouse’s employer, Pizer said. At Columbia Law, Goldberg was co-director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law and founded the Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic, where she trained law students to construct court briefs that aimed to destigmatize and advocate for the inclusion of LGBTQ people in constitutional protections, Pizer said.

Goldberg will be effective at undoing many of the Trump administration policies that were harmful to LGBTQ students and survivors of campus sexual assault, Pizer said. She noted how former secretary of education Betsy DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance that protected transgender students from discrimination and issued Title IX regulations that narrowed the type of sexual harassment complaints colleges must respond to. Critics of DeVos's actions and Title IX experts expect Goldberg, and the Biden administration as a whole, to eradicate those policies.

“It was a steady eroding and removing of protections against discrimination, for lots of people, but specifically LGBTQ folks and students,” Pizer said. “For this administration to tap a high-profile national expert and a champion of civil rights and student safety is a statement as well as an instrument of change … It’s symbol and substance at the same time.”

Goldberg criticized the Trump administration's proposed changes to Title IX in a 2019 op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education. She said a requirement that students be cross-examined by third party "advocates" during sexual misconduct disciplinary hearings in order to test their credibility could be trauma-inducing for students who were sexually assaulted. The requirement was one of the hallmark pieces of the DeVos regulations. Goldberg noted that it would be burdensome for institutions to carry out the requirement, which would create inequities in the Title IX process if, for example, one student could afford to hire an attorney and another could not.

“Campuses are not courtrooms,” she wrote. “Although the Department of Education says that its proposal will avoid ‘any unnecessary trauma’ that might come from students questioning one another directly, some advocates argue that concerns about trauma remain strong and will probably deter students -- especially those who are afraid of the accused student -- from filing complaints at all.”

LGBTQ rights advocates say Goldberg will also have to confront other Trump administration actions, including a memo criticized for taking particular aim at transgender students. The memo instructed OCR leaders to interpret “sex” to mean “biological sex, male and female” and said discrimination against transgender students is not considered a violation of Title IX.

Goldberg did not respond to multiple requests for comment made through her Columbia Law and department email addresses, as well as through Pizer. A spokesperson for the Department of Education said acting department heads will not be conducting interviews with media before Miguel Cardona, President Biden's nominee for secretary of education, is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

La'Shawn Rivera, executive director of Columbia's Sexual Violence Response and Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center, praised Goldberg's work at the university in an emailed statement.

“Having worked closely with Professor Goldberg for several years, I know her to be a passionate advocate for the rights of survivors of sexual assault and other forms of gender-based misconduct," Rivera said. "Her deep expertise in this field is a tremendous asset that now has the opportunity to impact the country. The Office of Civil Rights will benefit from her knowledge, her determination and her leadership."

Paul Castillo, counsel and student rights strategist at Lambda Legal, said Goldberg and other OCR leaders have a long way to go to ensure that LGBTQ students trust the federal government to uphold their rights.

Castillo said this work has already begun; one of President Joe Biden’s first executive orders issued last week after taking office was a directive to agency officials, including those in the Education Department, to assess and adjust civil rights guidance to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity within the first 100 days of his administration. Whether Goldberg remains as head of OCR, a position that is currently temporary, or is assigned to her other appointed position, deputy assistant secretary for strategic operations and outreach for the office, she will be “prominent” in the department’s civil rights work, Castillo said.

“The leadership team at OCR certainly has a tall task before them to unravel the dismantling of civil rights for students over the last four years,” he said. “Goldberg’s appointment in the leadership role, along with others to be named, have already signaled that there is a dedication to protecting students … There’s real synergy regarding her background and the task that OCR will have to respond to students who have experienced sexual harassment and violence.”

Tina Tchen, who was executive director of the Obama White House Council of Women and Girls, said she met Goldberg in 2017 and that her background is a "unique mixture" of law and overseeing college processes, making her an "ideal" fit to oversee the Office for Civil Rights. Tchen, who is president and CEO of Time's Up Now, an organization that advocates against workplace sexual harassment and assault, said Goldberg stepped into her administrative position at Columbia at a time when many institutions were struggling to implement Obama administration guidance that aimed to better support survivors.

"What Suzanne did was step into that moment as lots of schools were trying to figure out what best to do and how to do it -- put processes in place … that protected students and encouraged them to come forward … and not shirking away from doing that," Tchen said. "She came to this very complex set of issues with that approach, which is why I’m very thrilled that she will have this new position at the Department of Education.​"

Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, said administrators are pleased to see one of their own selected for a role often filled by politicians who don’t understand how the complexities of federal Title IX guidance play out on college campuses.

“People who worked with her at Columbia have said she’s levelheaded, that she’s competent as an administrator and that they’re excited to have her in a role to oversee Title IX because she understands it more than others who’ve held that role,” Sokolow said of Goldberg. “Having some insight on how the regulations play out in real life practice is phenomenally important.”

Roskin-Frazee, the former Columbia student, is not at all comforted by Goldberg’s history at Columbia. She wonders whether the Biden administration looked deep enough into Goldberg's tenure at the university or knew about how dissatisfied survivors were with her leadership. Roskin-Frazee said she and other members of No Red Tape took issue with policies Goldberg initially backed, such as a ban on students recording interviews with university Title IX investigators, which was later rescinded. She said the group's complaints about some staff members’ failure to report sexual misconduct complaints made by students during this period went unaddressed.

“I’m sitting here going, did you not talk to any of the students who are now the people she’s protecting?” Roskin-Frazee said. “I am floored.”

The Department of Education currently has five open investigations into Columbia for alleged violations of Title IX, all of which were filed during Goldberg’s tenure, according to an online list of pending OCR complaints. (Sokolow said Goldberg will likely be recused from resolving those open complaints because of the conflict of interest.)

Brandee Anderson, a Columbia Law School graduate, said she took a class with Goldberg and reached out to her when Anderson filed a sexual assault complaint with the university in 2015. Anderson became emotional while recalling how she sought help from Goldberg and felt brushed off. Anderson, who was also involved with No Red Tape, said she expected Goldberg to reform Columbia’s Title IX policies for the better during an already fraught time for survivors of sexual assault at the university. Anderson said she now believes Goldberg doesn’t have “survivors’ best interests in mind.”

“It’s just like a slap in the face and heartbreaking that she’s now able to ascend to this greater height,” Anderson said. “It would be a huge blow to survivors if this went unchecked or unchallenged. She’s not a beacon of hope in this area.”

(This article was updated to include comments from the executive director of Columbia University's Sexual Violence Response and Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center.)

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