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President’s Desk Q&A: Meredith Raimondo on Title IX

March 18, 2015

  Photo by John Seyfried

This week I’m introducing a new monthly feature to this space: candid conversations transcribed in question-and-answer format with individuals who play important roles at Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music.

As president, I have the privilege of working closely with many terrific faculty, staff, students, and alumni. I thought this would be a good forum for sharing with a broader audience their ideas, insights, and wisdom on a range of current topics.

To kick this off, I sat down for a conversation with Meredith Raimondo. Meredith is associate professor of comparative American studies. She came to Oberlin in 2003 as one of the first professors in the newly created Department of Comparative American Studies. In late 2014, Meredith was appointed special assistant to the president for diversity, equity, and inclusion and Title IX coordinator.

In our time together, I asked Meredith to share information regarding Title IX at Oberlin: what it is and who it covers; the college’s new policy; the people involved in reporting, investigations, and hearings; and more. As the conversation drew to an end, Meredith asked a few questions of me.

Here is the transcript of our conversation. I hope you find it interesting and informative.

Marvin Krilsov (MK)

I thought we could start by talking about the things you are doing in your new position. For any of our readers who may not already know, what exactly is Title IX?

Meredith Raimondo (MR)

Title IX is a law passed in 1972 that prohibits “sex discrimination in education.” That’s the language that was used in ’72. What it really means is making sure there are no barriers to educational opportunity on the basis of sex, gender, gender identity and expression, and in some cases sexual orientation. It’s kind of the large complex of things that we now see as related to gender.

MK

So how does your job involve enforcing this law?

MR

Most people are familiar with Title IX because of its impact on athletics, which was kind of the high visibility issue for the first 40 years that the law was in effect. Over the last few years, there’s been a much higher visibility of issues related to sexual assault, which is one of the forms of gender discrimination and harassment that can interfere with education and that, actually, has been part of Title IX from its inception. Really what’s happening is we’re seeing more visibility in an area that Title IX has always covered. It was never narrowly focused on athletics and always covered all of the ways in which gender discrimination and harassment—which includes all the forms of sexual violence and now intimate partner violence and stalking—might interfere with a student’s access to educational opportunity.

MK

And does this apply to any student on campus? Who exactly does Title IX cover?

MR

It covers anybody who is a student, faculty member, staff member, or guest of the college. The law actually says “all persons,” not “all students, all staff, all faculty.” Everybody has Title IX rights on a college campus.

MK

So what are you doing, and how would you say Oberlin is doing in enforcing Title IX?

MR

Like a lot of campuses, we decided to take a closer look at what we were doing when the national conversation broke. We were particularly paying attention to what was happening at some of our peer institutions, which had some pretty high profile concerns with sexual violence on campus in 2012. So we used that as an opportunity—and you very kindly convened a task force—to look at whether we were meeting our Title IX obligations through our current policies and practices.

Oberlin had what was in the 1990s a very forward-looking policy on sexual offense, but that policy had gotten old. This is a rapidly moving area, so it seemed like the right time to determine if what we were doing was enabling us to be as effective as possible in meeting our Title IX responsibilities to stop discrimination and harassment from happening, to address its effects when we can, and to prevent its recurrence.

MK

As I recall, you and Eric Estes, dean of students, chaired that task force beginning a couple of years ago, and the final report was released about a year ago?

MR

The new policy that the task force developed was approved in May 2014 by the general faculty.

MK

What does the new policy do?

MR

The new policy uses a comprehensive system to ensure people’s needs are being met under Title IX. We went from a system that was primarily focused on adjudication, a hearing process, to a comprehensive system that has multiple points of entry through which people may bring concerns to the college. Employing a central system that then ensures there is prompt, consistent, and fair application of remedies to experiences of discrimination and harassment. That may involve adjudication in some instances, or it may involve people seeking other kinds of resolutions.

For example, perhaps they don’t want the person they are reporting to know that they have made a report, but they are looking for support in some other way to enable them to continue to access their education. There are a wide range of strategies we can use to meet the goal of ensuring people have educational opportunity. What we wanted to build was a highly accessible and responsive system so that students, faculty, and staff know they have a place to come and have those needs met.

MK

Where would I go if I wanted to report an instance where I thought a violation might have occurred?

MR

You can report that to anyone who is a responsible employee of the college, you can certainly come directly to me, you could go to Safety & Security if you needed immediate assistance—that’s our 24 hour response system—but you could also go to a faculty member, you could go to a coach, you could go to anyone you trust who will help you bring that report to me as the Title IX coordinator.

MK

How would someone who is accused of doing something inappropriate find out that a report has been filed against them?

MR

That’s a really important question because the goal of the process is to ensure that everyone has their rights appropriately respected and all people in the process have rights.

If the college were to want to take action against someone, that could only happen if there was a fair and impartial fact-finding process to establish what actually did happen. The person who is a respondent in a report of sexual misconduct would be informed of that investigation and they, like the reporting party, would have the right to an advisor and support throughout that process. And I, as Title IX coordinator, would be someone to go to with any concerns about how the process was proceeding.

There would be an investigation. The college works with an outside investigator whose job is to do a fair and impartial collection of the facts. They don’t make any decisions. They just gather everything we know and that information might be used to have a disciplinary hearing if there is sufficient information to move in that direction. So, first of all, there has to be a basis upon which a panel might find someone responsible for violating the policy. We have slightly different processes for faculty, staff, and students if we do move to the step of a formal resolution, but all of those processes involve the right to examine the evidence, to present witnesses, to know what the other party is saying, and ultimately to appeal any decision that’s being made.

MK

You mentioned some outside investigators. Who are those people?

MR

We’re working with investigators at a law firm in the Cleveland area. Our central contact there is a really interesting guy. He has a higher education background, worked in residential education, and then earned a law degree. Now one of his specialties is working on college campuses on Title IX.

MK

I know there has been been a lot of discussion in the media about who sits on a panel should a report reach that stage. What is Oberlin’s policy on that?

MR

When the respondent is a student, the panel is composed of three administrators who are trained in serving as hearing panelists, which means they are trained in the neurobiology of trauma, they’re trained in understanding Title IX and sexual misconduct, and they’re trained in providing a fair and impartial hearing process. Under our old policy, faculty, staff, and students all served on panels, but what we heard through the task force review, particularly from students, was that this was creating challenges on our small campus.

As one example, students couldn’t anticipate faculty they might in the future like to take a class from, and if that person had been on a panel, they might feel awkward taking a class from them. Similarly with student panelists, even if you don’t know the student personally, it’s a small community: You might run into that person in Stevenson or in the gym and so it’s really hard to have confidentiality.

The idea of using trained administrators is that we have a large enough pool that we feel now we can provide well trained people who can be consistent in their application of the policy and allow people to get a fair hearing that won’t continue to impact their education negatively afterward.

MK

Since the new policy has been enacted, have you seen an increase in the number of complaints or inquiries that have been filed?

MR

Yes, we’ve seen a significant increase in people's willingness to report. What the task force heard was that it was a chilly climate for reporting. People were concerned that if they did come forward, the college would not be helpful to them, and that was obviously a major concern that we set out to fix with the new process. We need to be continually vigilant about making sure that the process is accessible and helpful to people.

I think one of the major changes has been that the process is now really designed to centralize the wishes of the person who’s reporting, letting us understand how they would like to see the complaint resolved. That said, the Title IX team reviews every complaint being mindful of how the wishes of the reporting party balance against issues of campus safety, so there may be times when the college will need to act even if the person who is reporting is not comfortable with that, because we are aware there is a threat to others on campus or perhaps to that individual. But in those cases, we still can work with that person to make sure they only have to participate in the way that they are comfortable participating.

MK

There’s been a lot of controversy about these policies nationally, and I saw an article in the American Prospect that cited Oberlin as a model as compared to some other schools. How would you describe or characterize our policy and why it seems to be, at least in some people’s minds, a very model policy?

MR

Nationally, there is not consensus yet about the best way to do these things. One of the emerging practices the White House task force and others have identified as promising is the idea of a single decision maker, often the investigator. So the investigator would do a fair and impartial investigation and then make a determination about whether the policy had been violated, and then in some cases actually impose a penalty. Hearings would only occur at the point of appeal.

We didn’t think that was something that fit Oberlin’s culture, particularly the expectations for due process in our community, and so we’ve tried to build a process that brings in new eyes at each stage. There are more steps and layers in some ways to our process, but I think it allows checks and balances throughout the system to ensure that everyone’s rights are being appropriately respected.

MK

I know that, in addition to the hearings and the investigation, you are doing a lot of other work on prevention and education. In some ways, that may be even more important in terms of creating a safe campus for all of us. Can you tell us a little bit about what you are doing in that regard?

MR

I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of prevention and education. We’ll always have to have a system of response but, to me, success will come when we don’t have as many people experiencing things that they need to report. At the point of a report, we’re fairly far down a line of somebody having experienced something that could really hurt their education, and I would like to see less of that. I think our broader commitment to social justice on campus and to the need to prevent all forms of violence on campus will really compel us to focus on the prevention side.

What’s so exciting about that is we have had a group of really wonderful peer educators step forward and provide leadership on campus. It is absolutely my belief that students will change student culture. Those students will need support from the college and support from administrators, but they understand where the challenges are and can talk to each other as frankly as possible about the challenges that cause sexual violence on campus—particularly challenges related to alcohol which, as you know, are difficult to talk about in an honest way.

Those students have developed a series of peer education workshops. One of them is for new students and is an introduction to the campus community and its expectations. It provides skills for students in understanding key issues like consent in sexual relationships. There is also a bystander intervention initiative. That’s one of the best practices nationally that people are citing. We piloted that with fall athletes, looking at that group as an important leadership cohort on campus. That workshop is designed to give people the skills to safely and effectively intervene when they see something happening with the goal of preventing misconduct. And I’m really excited about the possibilities of that workshop developing further to include the whole campus.

MK

If you had one wish for improving what we do, what would be the most important thing to you?

MR

Oh I have so many wishes. I can only have one?

MK

Only one.

(LAUGHTER)

MR

I think in the short run, continuing to develop our staffing capacity to support students doing peer education is going to be a really valuable way for us to use institutional resources. That is an incredible educational opportunity for students; it’s not only a benefit to the campus, it’s a benefit to the students who do the work. I think it pays off in enormous ways.

That’s one thing I think the college can do, but really I have to have two wishes. My other wish is that students will have some really frank conversations about the nighttime culture on campus. What I hear from students repeatedly is that daytime social-justice-Oberlin is not always carried through into nighttime social spaces, where people experience real challenges, particularly when alcohol and other drugs are involved, and where there often are challenges around gender behavior that we don’t see in our daytime social interactions. We need to talk more about our 24/7 residential culture and students, I think, need to have more spaces to talk frankly to each other about what kind of place they want this to be.

MK

Do you see signs that this very tough discussion about nighttime behavior is occurring? And are there things that people who are reading this can do to help promote those conversations?

MR

Yes, absolutely. I think that students are already leading this effort, and I certainly want to acknowledge the long work of many generations of students on this issue: the students who are involved in PRSM, which is a new initiative, and the students at the SIC and other organizations who have been doing such important work for many years on campus.

I think that one significant way to help would be to become involved with and supportive of the work those organizations are doing. They offer a lot of programming, there are opportunities to take EXCOs, there are opportunities to get engaged and to do peer helping work on campus. All of those, I think, are important contributions to making this the kind of culture that students want.

MR

You get the opportunity to speak with presidents about other campuses and get a sense of what the national conversation is, and you also have a long history of working with the law on social justice issues. I’m curious to know what you see as the future of some of these Title IX debates in higher education.

MK

First, on the presidents, I can tell you that this is very much on the minds of campus leaders throughout the country. Sexual assault, sexual misconduct, how to comply with Department of Education regulations, and how to create safe campuses is very much on our minds. At virtually every conference I attend, this is a major topic of conversation. And I would say that there are some things that I hear that make me feel very good about what we’re doing at Oberlin. We are not all the way where we would like to be, but I think relative to many campuses we are doing a lot, and reasonably well.

MR

Oberlin is a faculty-governed institution, and we take our tradition of faculty governance seriously. Student conduct has tended to live more on the student life side of things, so I’m curious if you have thoughts about the role of faculty in helping institutions meet their Title IX obligations.

MK

I think faculty can certainly help model behavior and can help guide us. I was pleased that faculty members were so involved in the drafting of the policy, and that ultimately the general faculty passed the policy. It is, I think, the case that the world we live in requires some specialization. And I think by moving to a more administrative process, but with guidance from the faculty, that we are probably achieving the best of both worlds: We draw on the specialization of people who are trained in these fields, but guided by faculty who govern this institution and ensure that our values remain intact.

I expect that we will revisit the policy on a regular basis and that you will report to the faculty how the policy is working. If there are concerns, we will change the policy, and the faculty will be the ones to determine that. I think it’s also important for faculty and staff, as well as students, to be in touch with best practices that are happening at other campuses. I know you, Eric Estes, Allison Williams, Sandhya Subramanian, and others have studied this topic very carefully and participated in many regional and national conferences, and that you will continue to do so as it evolves.

MR

One of the most challenging issues in this area and one I think is highly unsettled in the national conversation is the relationship of colleges and universities to police departments and law enforcement, in general, and the criminal justice system. My own feeling is that this whole Title IX thing happened because colleges and universities were not doing a good job. Our sector earned the scrutiny that we’ve received.

On the other hand, I think there are some really important questions about the capacity of colleges and universities to handle the most challenging forms of criminal conduct like sexual assault. I’m wondering if you have thoughts about what those relationships might or should look like.

MK

That has been a big topic. I think a lot depends on each campus and the broader community, and the community police force, too. There is the capacity of the campus, and also the capacity and willingness of local law enforcement. Some law enforcement officials may be reluctant to enter into some of these areas, unless they are egregious, because they feel they don’t have the expertise and/or capacity to prioritize them. But clearly there are some instances where partnering with local law enforcement is absolutely essential.

I think that rather than suggesting a one-size-fits-all model, it probably needs to be a dialogue between the campus and its community police force. I think some campuses are moving to increase capacity in their own security departments. Our Safety and Security is not focused in that area and hasn’t been staffed with that in mind. But at the University of Michigan, it was a different model. Different campuses are going to be different.

I think we really need to have a discussion about who can do what. There will be times when campuses will need to work with local law enforcement, but there will be other times when I think it may be better for the campus to try to deal with things using internal processes. But I can’t see a situation where both of those parties won’t have to be in the discussion.

MR

As a closing thought, what would you want the families of our students and our prospective students to know about this issue—those who may be following the national Title IX debate and wondering how Oberlin is thinking about it or what kind of environment we will provide to students?

MK

I would want parents and family members to feel their child is absolutely going to be well taken care of at Oberlin, and that if there are concerns, there are processes and avenues for that student to follow. The most important thing is that the values we have articulated are ones that are shared by every member of the community. We know that there may be situational challenges, and that’s why the education piece is so important, particularly for young people who are coming into unprecedented freedom when they enter a residential community like this, that they know how to deal with that freedom. I would hope that parents and families would feel that there are a lot of people looking out, including fellow students, as well as faculty and staff, and that while no campus is perfect, we aim to make this one as close to perfect as we possibly can.

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