Education Department

Why the Education Department shouldn't ignore student affairs professionals (essay)

As anyone who has clicked on a news website this past week knows, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her acting assistant secretary for civil rights, Candice Jackson, held hearings last week in what they describe as an attempt to better understand the campus dynamics, processes and challenges of sexual assault response.

It is not the first time Capitol Hill has hosted hearings on this topic, and it certainly won’t be the last. But once again some vital voices were missing: those of the deans of students, student conduct officers, campus investigators and hearing officers who live with this issue in their daily lives and may have something useful to say.

I am not taking sides in this long debate about the importance of supporting survivors versus the criticality of protecting accused students. Indeed, this is as false a dichotomy as can exist. The challenges of responding fairly in the context of all that has evolved are ones I have already shared in this space. I would never diminish in any way the devastation survivors must feel, nor do I discount the fear and bewilderment experienced by those who have been unjustly accused.

I just want a chance to sit in a hearing on the Hill, microphone in front of me, and speak to the many people in that room who, I believe wholeheartedly, want to “do this right,” as DeVos said. But no one invited me or, it seems, any of my student affairs colleagues. In addition to the nine students who spoke as survivors and the seven students and two parents who represented the views of those who have experienced a seemingly unfair process, there were 19 “representatives of educational institutions and subject-matter experts” who were also present.

Who were these? A list of the attendees was provided in The Washington Post’s coverage. In addition to three college presidents, there were six lawyers, four employed by colleges and universities and two from private practices. There were eight representatives of education associations. There was a law professor. There was one Title IX coordinator.

I do not mean to cast aspersions on any of these individuals and am grateful for their interest in, and commitment to, this work. I do not doubt for an instant that these are people with thoughtful opinions and useful experience on both sides of this issue.

But Secretary DeVos and Assistant Secretary Jackson, where were the people who are doing this work every day, wrestling with the impossible system that has been created by (1) the Department of Education, (2) journalists and (3) a student culture that reflects the misogyny, alcohol use and casual sex that is part of our broader society? They weren’t there.

So perhaps I can provide some of that missing content. My expertise comes from three decades of working with students, including as a dean of students, overseeing conduct processes and the people who manage them. I am not a lawyer, but I have talked to a lot of them. I am not a survivor of sexual assault, but I have spent a lot of time with those who are. I have never been accused of sexual assault, but I have had a lot of painful conversations with students who have (and their parents).

You invited three college presidents to your hearing. Obviously, these are important leaders from whom to seek guidance. I worked for a terrific president and was grateful for the listening ear, encouragement and got-your-back support he provided when we were dealing with a sexual assault case. He would, however, be the first to say that if you really want to understand what these cases are like on the front lines, you might want to move down the org chart and find the dean or student conduct director who can tell you in exhaustive detail how the irreconcilable demands of fairness and compassion play out in these cases.

You invited practicing attorneys -- six of them. Again, I have worked with superb lawyers and know they understand the laws that influence campus sexual assault response inside out and from angles I didn’t know existed. But they are generally once removed from the anguish and heartbreak we encounter.

You brought before you representatives from national associations. However, the three associations that might have offered a valuable perspective on the process -- NASPA, ACPA and ASCA -- were missing from the list, while two people from the National School Boards Association, which focuses on K-12 public education, were on the list.

What perspective would student affairs professionals bring that the people you invited were unlikely to have? What insights might our experience add to this discussion and assist you in your efforts? I hope I can make a case for our inclusion with some specific examples.

  • Until you have sat in your office looking at a young woman, remembering how her parents spoke to you at the opening of the school year, saying only half jokingly, “Please take care of our girl; she is our greatest treasure,” and listened to her while she recounted an assault at the hands of a classmate, you will not know all you need to know.
  • Until you have sat in your office with a young man -- someone you met in his first semester, saw his timidity and awkwardness and encouraged him to join a student organization to make some friends, someone who still stops you on the quad to say hi and always thanks you for taking an interest in him, who is a semester away from graduating and beginning graduate school -- and have to tell him that he is accused of assault and that institutional policy requires you to remove him from campus pending the outcome of an investigation that, yes, will take weeks, you will not know all you need to know.
  • Until you have taken a call from a lawyer hired by a student’s family and listened while that attorney told you they would work diligently to ruin your reputation and end your career if you could not find a way to resolve this case in favor of their client, you will not know all you need to know.
  • Until you have listened to a mother in agony, insisting her son would never do such a thing, but who wants to respect your title and what you are telling her has happened, or a father in tears wanting to understand how his daughter could have been so badly violated at this school you and your admissions colleagues led him to believe was a caring and reasonably safe community, you will not know all you need to know.
  • Until you have parsed the phrase “preponderance of evidence,” knowing that on the razor-thin edge between 49 and 51 percent rests the future of two or more students and their families, you will not know all you need to know.
  • Until you have been called a rape apologist by some, an ideologically stunted feminist by others, been the subject of petitions or anonymous postings or stood in front of an angry group of students and tried to simultaneously console, educate and challenge them, you will not know all you need to know.

Do you want to get this right, Secretary DeVos? Do you care about holding campuses, and students, accountable, Assistant Secretary Jackson? Then add a fourth group to your hearings: people like me who have felt the weight of responsibility for students’ futures -- indeed, their lives. People who have lost countless hours of sleep wrestling with the demons of uncertainty and dilemma. People who have committed their professional lives to this work, including some who have, like me, stepped away from it in order to restore the part of their hearts damaged by the anger, sadness and unsolvable challenges.

Our work, how we do it and how we feel about it, is not all you need to know. But it is an essential perspective if you really want to understand the crisis of campus sexual assault and the damage it is doing to our higher education communities. Invite us. Listen to us. Ask us how we do it (or why we no longer do it). You have nothing to lose by hearing what we have to say, but a great deal to gain by including us in your efforts.

Your tweaks and wholesale changes to policy -- whatever ends up resulting from your efforts -- will ripple outward to the offices we sit in and into the conversations we have with students in those offices. Surely, a view from those seats is worth your time.

Lee Burdette Williams is a writer and educator in Burlington, Vt.

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