Admins standardize misconduct responses

misconductgraph
Photo by Caroline Tan.

As Yale works to improve its sexual grievance procedures for students, its efforts have also adjusted the resources available to staff and faculty members.

After the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) clarified its Title IX regulations last April, administrators nationwide have taken steps to make their universities’ responses to complaints of sexual misconduct more consistent across staff, faculty members and students, according to six higher education law experts interviewed. Deputy Provost Stephanie Spangler, who began overseeing Yale’s Title IX compliance in November, said in a Wednesday email that her appointment is part of a larger effort to improve coordination between the University’s various grievance processes. Still, some of the University’s procedures remain separate for different subsets of the Yale community, and some policies — such as the use of nondisclosure agreements — differ between those procedures.

“This process [of reviewing Yale’s sexual grievance procedures] has not been limited to complaints involving students but rather has addressed the procedures for reviewing complaints from all members of the University community, thus providing opportunities to harmonize the University’s approaches to sexual misconduct complaints and provide enhanced coordination of related procedures,” she said.

Higher education law experts said universities generally assign different administrators — such as student life officials, academic deans and human resources officials — the responsibility of addressing sexual misconduct issues for certain segments of a college’s campus, adding that this division can create confusion among individuals seeking help.

At Yale, while undergraduates and graduate students are encouraged to seek advice from the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education Center, employees and postdoctoral students can reach out to the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, which addresses complaints related to racial and gender-based discrimination. All members of the Yale community can file complaints with the Yale Police and Title IX coordinators, and the newly-established University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct (UWC) hears all complaints except those filed by faculty or staff members against staff members. Employees with grievances against other employees can also bring complaints to human resources officials.

One library staff member interviewed, who filed a sexual harassment complaint against a colleague two years ago and wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the issue, said she thinks the University “compartmentalizes [its procedures] too much.” When she approached administrators with her complaint, she said she had been asked to talk to a variety of different administrators, who she said were each responsible for handling different parts of her case. She added that she felt this process “divided up all the different offenses until it looked like not much had happened” since no administrator was responsible for addressing the complete issue.

Nancy Cantalupo, an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University who has been working on sexual misconduct issues for over 15 years, said confusion about the pathways available for filing complaints is “inevitable” because of the different legal regimes that govern members of a campus community.

Spangler said administrators have been working to improve consistency between different departments, adding that officials reviewed the updated Title IX regulations in April’s “Dear Colleague Letter” as part of its “broader review of issues relating to sexual misconduct.” University President Richard Levin appointed Spangler in November following a report by the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate, which was convened last April after the OCR launched its ongoing investigation into whether Yale has a hostile sexual climate.

Colleges and universities nationwide have pursued different strategies as they attempt to streamline the process of filing sexual misconduct complaints. Peter Lake, director for the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University, said initial reactions to the Dear Colleague Letter involved attempts to “find some consistency” within a university’s different procedures, but added that the change did not necessarily entail “unifying” its processes.

“You may not need to have one singular system,” he said. “Suppose you could have polytheism: you could have many ‘gods’ of Title IX enforcement, but there does have to be one master Title IX coordinator who oversees all of the ‘lesser deities.’ So there does need to be some coherence to the system.”

David Armstrong, general counsel and vice president for development at Notre Dame College of Ohio, said the Dear Colleague Letter prompted Notre Dame officials to standardize its policies for different subsets of people in the community, though universities could have interpreted the letter in different ways. He added that he thinks the OCR is not always clear about its expectations for Title IX compliance.

“The federal government needs to get away from a ‘gotcha’ system and work more towards educating so we as an institution know what to expect,” he said. “If a situation occurs on campus, the problem is that it’s ex post facto. The Department of Education will come in after and say ‘you did this wrong,’ but nobody tells us how to do it right.”

Yale’s use of confidentiality contracts serves as one instance in which procedures for students and staff differ — a discrepancy some experts attributed to differing legal obligations between administrators and the two groups. Michael Della Rocca, chair of the UWC, said in a January interview that the committee does not use written nondisclosure agreements, though he said administrators do request during complaint processes that all parties maintain confidentiality. On the other hand, Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said Yale may ask staff members to sign nondisclosure agreements, a practice she said is “common” among employers.

One complainant, who also requested anonymity, said she was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement with the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. The contract she signed prohibited her from discussing the terms of the agreement — except with family members and legal counsel — and requested that she “forever discharge Yale and its current and former employees” from liability, according to a copy of the agreement she provided to the News.

Valarie Stanley, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and the Title IX coordinator for employees, said in a Monday email that all people involved in a complaint investigation are asked to keep the matters confidential, adding that her office informs individuals of all sexual grievance resources available to them.

Last month, Spangler released a report documenting 52 sexual misconduct complaints brought to administrators from July 1 to Dec. 31 of last year. The report included sexual harassment issues among undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral students, staff and faculty members.

Comments