At Stanford University, an athlete was convicted of sexually assaulting an incapacitated woman. Not long after that, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville agreed to pay $2.48 million to settle a lawsuit brought against it by a group of women who said they were sexually assaulted by student athletes. Indeed, it seems as if a week doesn’t go by without the issue of sexual violence at colleges and universities making the headlines.
In this climate, the Title IX coordinator has become a crucial figure in efforts to deal with sexual assaults and their effects on campuses. But because much of the work of a Title IX coordinator occurs in confidence, it is often not well understood by others at the institution. A better awareness of how such coordinators do their jobs and the role they play can help all of us deal with the challenging issues surrounding sexual misconduct at institutions across the nation.
From February to July 2015, I was Stetson University’s interim Title IX coordinator, after the coordinator announced he was leaving for another job. I did not seek the position. My president asked me to serve, and my charge included helping our search committee identify a suitable candidate to assume a full-time post.
I was apprehensive about taking the job. First, I was not sure I would have the time or energy, given my supervision of the Center for Higher Education Law and Policy at the university’s law school, full teaching load, book projects and work as a speaker, consultant and expert witness. On top of that, my 99-year-old dad’s health was declining, and I wanted to be there to support him.
Second, as Title IX coordinator, I could be at ground zero of a major controversy at any time and/or (gulp) responsible somehow for the loss of my institution’s Title IV funding. And, third, doing the job risks traumatization and retraumatization -- an underappreciated challenge for Title IX coordinators everywhere.
I imagine that my president turned to me in part because of my extensive academic interest in higher education law generally and student safety specifically. I have directed the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy for many years and have also been very active as a Title IX consultant since 2011. Yet nothing -- and I mean nothing -- truly prepared me to take the role of Title IX coordinator. The gravity of the job hits immediately on the first day. Lives can be at stake, and you are on point. For all my prior experience, I was still a rookie when it came to actually dealing with Title IX issues on a daily basis.
But that is how it is in Title IX -- battlefield promotions, hit the ground running, develop strategies and tactics as you go along. For all the bluster about best practices, the simple fact is that what we in higher education don’t know about Title IX compliance vastly outstrips what we do know. Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights does not prepare anyone for the moment of taking the helm.
Once in office, I had to ask myself, “How do I operationalize all the complex Title IX guidance?” And I distilled the answer to that question into three focus areas: communication, leadership and structure.
Communication: The Batphone and the Football
The first step in operationalization is communication. Without the ability to receive and process data, a Title IX system is like a submarine without sonar. It requires eyes virtually everywhere at all times, which is mostly unrealistic and thus exceedingly stressful. It was challenging to keep up with multiple data points simultaneously.
Almost instantly, I became tethered 24-7 to a “batphone,” which I carried in a special pouch I named “the football.” I also came to depend heavily on an army of mandated reporters, known as responsible employees, to provide necessary data. I learned very quickly that many reports do not come first, if at all, from victims or survivors but instead from others who witness or otherwise learn about Title IX issues.
As the incident at Stanford demonstrates, bystanders often make the vital difference in bringing perpetrators to justice. In other situations, people are so badly traumatized or fearful of coming forward (understandably and sadly, because victim blaming remains so rampant) that their friends or family members come forward first. It’s not uncommon to get only fragments of story at the outset -- for instance, when someone sees something that looks troubling but they are not sure how to characterize what they have seen.
I dreamed about data gaps -- the Title IX equivalent of exam-stress dreams. You really don’t ever get a good night’s sleep on Title IX watch. If the phone, a text message or email doesn’t wake you up, your subconscious crunches the ever-present fear about what you don’t know, the pattern of discrimination you don’t see, the person who needs to come forward but who doesn’t trust the system -- the list seems endless.
Leadership: The Team, Its Coach and Its Mission
OCR guidance envisions a Title IX team. As a Title IX coordinator, you usually don’t directly supervise many people, but you need a lot of help and cooperation. The first order of business after establishing communication is to identify the key players -- including campus law enforcement officers, the dean of students, the directors of community standards and human resources, the senior administrator in charge of academic affairs, and coaches and deputy Title IX directors, for example -- and help them all form an identity as a team.
As Title IX coordinator, I asked administrators to come to meetings, and they showed up. I asked them to do things, and they did those things. They even volunteered.
I wondered, “Why are they doing this? They all know how to do their jobs better than I do, and I am not their direct report. I really don’t have any authority to make them do anything, and only a few jobs are the distinct province of the Title IX coordinator.”
After spending just a little time with the team, it became clear: Title IX compliance team members want leadership and something to believe in that gives their Title IX work meaning and purpose. The Title IX coordinator is a coach because the team needs a coach. Title IX policies and procedures do not respond -- people do. The motivation of Title IX responders is decisive in Title IX compliance success.
As a first step in setting a positive goal for the team, I tried something simple: a clear, achievable mission statement. Our mission was Title IX’s mission -- to reduce or eliminate barriers to educational opportunities caused by sex discrimination -- and to make each day a better day in Title IX compliance than the day before. Perfect compliance as a goal may be OCR’s dream, but it is not operational reality. Setting an unrealistic goal of perfect compliance -- whatever that might mean -- engenders frustration. It creates a culture of compliance built on the assumption that best efforts will never be good enough and a false fixation on outcomes over the real goal of creating a sustainable culture of compliance.
What is truly important is bringing the spirit of Title IX alive on a campus committed to the pursuit of Title IX’s mission. One of the most satisfying moments in the job is when a person impacted by Title IX issues thanks you for your efforts on their behalf. Or when you catch and discipline a perpetrator, knowing that it may have spared future victims. Title IX policies and procedures do not respond -- people do. The motivation of Title IX responders is decisive in Title IX compliance success.
Structure: The Four Corners of Compliance
Title IX team members can get lost in the weeds of compliance without a sense of their roles in the overall compliance system. Federal guidance provides mandates in four overlapping areas of operation: (1) organization and management, (2) investigation and grievance systems, (3) support for reporting and responding parties and (4) campus culture and climate. A well-ordered Title IX system operates in these four corners in a coordinated way. To illustrate, team members must be well trained; good policies and investigative techniques are essential; help with class schedules, access to services, and other support should be available to people contacting the Title IX office; and campuses should conduct surveys and checks to assess climate.
Each team member has a role to play in at least one corner -- and the work of each team member depends on all others doing their jobs. Structure avoids duplication of effort, inconsistency and gaps in meeting compliance obligations, and improves collaboration. My job as Title IX coordinator was to translate the bazillion federal mandates into specific activities for team members in a structured way.
Improving communication and providing leadership and structure doesn’t change the fact that the authors of the federal guidance have imagine an idealized operational reality for campuses, with heavy emphasis on compliance at large, well-endowed institutions. But in a nonideal setting, and especially at a smaller liberal arts university, significant operational challenges exist. They include:
The guidance keeps coming … Title IX coordination is an almost absurdly dynamic job. About midway through my time, the Department of Education dropped substantial new guidance. There were many new requirements, including a clarified reporting mandate for Title IX coordinators to directly report to senior leadership, such as the president. The job becomes more complex as you are doing it. Every day is a new day in Title IX, where business as usual is business unusual.
A concierge approach. Colleges and universities have a predictable tendency to treat a Title IX coordinator as a concierge at times -- contacting the coordinator when needed but not always including him or her in all operations. It’s not that people are hiding things, they just don’t think of you because that’s not the way things were done. It takes time and training to get administrators and faculty members used to reporting information to the coordinator when they do not report to him or her as a matter of course, and to include the coordinator in processes that never operated with a coordinator before.
Many metrics. Colleges and universities must comply with many other federal and state mandates besides Title IX. Making sense of how they all patch together into a coherent, operational reality is a monumental task. Inevitably, Title IX compliance work requires choices -- choices that may be second-guessed, reviewed and even countermanded. For example, a judge has occasionally ordered a campus to do something that runs counter to federal guidance. And, with all due respect to the federal government, there are many points of choice for which is there is little, no or insufficient guidance. As Title IX coordinator, you must do the best you can with the guidance and metrics that are out there.
Limited compliance time. Title IX compliance requirements come with their own clock, even a shot clock. Many mandates require immediate compliance. Meanwhile, higher education traditionally works in its own time frame, which is often quite a bit longer. Developing a culture of meeting compliance obligations in compliance time takes patience -- recognizing that investigating regulators might provide no forbearance for the following a clock other than their own.
Growing reporting requirements. It takes some work to explain to superiors why an increase in reporting is a good thing. Ironically, if a Title IX system is more effective, you will receive more reports and the Title IX team will become overworked. I learned to prepare for the challenge of success and false negatives -- such as the perceived negative of a rise in reporting of harassment that follows when a Title IX system is working better because people who would previously not have come forward are now doing so.
Life or Death, Title IX Comes First
Title IX coordination involves dedication and sacrifice. On May 7, 2015, my dad passed away, three weeks shy of his 100th birthday. I was working on Title IX at the hospital and then in hospice, and I made Title IX-related calls while driving to make funeral arrangements. I didn’t tell the Title IX team or my supervisors. Partially, I did it out of respect for my dad. He would have wanted it that way -- a Depression-era guy who stressed the rewards of work and higher education and who taught me to play hurt and not complain about it.
But I also did not want to burden or disrupt our Title IX efforts with my personal challenges. I am not an EMT, firefighter, or combat soldier, but make no mistake, when it’s your time on watch, you can come to care more about your campus and its students and staff than yourself. The thought that anyone could be harmed because of even the slightest lapse in time or attention to compliance obligations made me heartsick. The federal government requires a Title IX coordinator to respond, but a duty to respond can turn into a form of caring that is hard to understand unless you have had the mantle of Title IX responsibility.
I grieved for my dad, and I dedicate this article to him. But I also had an epiphany. I came to realize that my apprehensions around being Title IX coordinator had evaporated completely. I had come to embrace my job and the opportunity to care deeply for the faculty members, administrators and students. I experienced an unusual variation on the old truism that one door closes and another opens.
The fight to end violence and discrimination is a calling -- and we all have a critical role to play. I hope those of you reading this article will become well acquainted with your Title IX coordinator, if you are not already, and be willing to support his or her work -- or perhaps even serve as a coordinator yourself one day. I recommend the job most highly.
At the preordained time in July, my president called to officially relieve me of duty. I have a thank-you card from my Title IX team that I keep in my treasure file -- the one I keep for rainy days to remind me why I came into higher education. My successors will now have the batphone and lead the team forward. My wish for them is my wish for all Title IX coordinators whom I now proudly call colleagues: may your days as coordinator be as rewarding as mine.
Peter Lake is professor of law, Charles A. Dana chair and director of the Center for Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law. He is also a former Title IX coordinator who misses the job.
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