Fraternity members at an off-campus house near Old Dominion University are under fire for hanging sexist "welcome" signs -- behavior that offends many, but is a crude tradition at many colleges. Until now, few academic leaders have spoken out.
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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.