“Strategy sessions” examine sexual climate

A week-long series of informal meetings between students, faculty and administrators could contribute to an improved sexual climate on campus if the organizers have their way — and according to three legal experts, federal investigators may lead the University in similarly focused efforts to ensure compliance with Title IX.

After Yale’s administration hastened the formation of the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct in response to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigation of Yale, the Women’s Center kicked off a week-long series of “strategy sessions” Monday afternoon in partnership with the Yale College Dean’s Office at the Provost’s House on Hillhouse Avenue. The talk, which around 70 people attended, was geared toward brainstorming ways in which Yalies can combat sexual misconduct, but the Women’s Centeer said it was not meant to help Yale comply with Title IX requirements, which prohibit gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

“These sessions are not designed to assess or change the status of Yale in relation to Title IX,” said Sally Walstrom ’12, public relations coordinator for the Women’s Center. “That is something for [the] OCR to evaluate.”

With the national media scrutinizing Yale due to the Title IX investigation, Walstrom said, the Women’s Center saw an opportunity to mobilize around the issue, calling it a “really important moment” for the University. By the end of the sessions, Walstrom added, the Women’s Center will forward suggestions for student and administrative action to Yale College Dean Mary Miller and the student body next week.

Provost Peter Salovey said allegations made in the complaint, which administrators have yet to receive from the OCR, will not be the focus of the week’s discussion.

“These discussions are very clearly not a place to debate the pros and cons of the filed complaint,” Salovey said. “Rather, they are constructive efforts to develop strategies for building a better climate, to listen to and learn from one another.”

The University may take additional steps to improve its sexual culture and harassment policies in conjunction with federal investigators, said three Title IX experts interviewed Monday.

In general, it is unlikely that the Office for Civil Rights declares a university has violated Title IX regulations, experts interviewed said. They said the OCR more often works with the universities to ensure they are in compliance going forward.

“Very rarely will the OCR declare that a school has done something wrong or that they are in violation. They use the investigation to pressure schools to change policies,” said Wendy Murphy, an adjunct professor at New England Law in Boston, who said she has filed seven Title IX complaints against universities with the Office for Civil Rights in her career.

S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, Inc. — a non-profit concerned with student safety on college campuses that assists students who file Title IX complaints — said the OCR has three options after it opens an investigation: It can take away federal funding, refer the case to the United States Department of Justice or reach a voluntary resolution agreement.

While most schools are found in compliance with Title IX requirements at the end of an investigation, California-based lawyer Dan Siegel said Yale’s case is a “little different from the garden variety of OCR investigations.”

The OCR most often performs randomly selected “investigations” of Title IX compliance at different schools, said Siegel, who has been litigating Title IX cases since 2004. By contrast, the investigation at Yale was prompted by a deliberate complaint condemning the social environment on campus.

“There has to be more than evidence of bad conduct, but [also] proof that the University’s policies have condoned [this behavior],” Siegel said. “If that’s the case, then it will seem like a worthwhile effort by the federal government.”

Carter said he has never heard of the OCR pursuing any option besides the voluntary resolution agreement. The OCR can either declare that the institution has violated Title IX regulations, he added, or it can work with the school to ensure it complies with the rules without officially stating that institutions were out of compliance — the path he claims the OCR prefers.

Even before the arrival of the OCR investigators on campus, though, the administration sped up the announcement of a new University-Wide Committee, which will be available to hear sexual misconduct cases from all schools within the University, UWC chair and philosophy professor Michael Della Rocca said.

Miller said administrators will work “expeditiously” to ensure that Yale meets the new Title IX stipulations Vice President Joe Biden announced last week.

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