Untangling Title IX in higher ed

To work toward compliance and handle related investigations, higher ed institutions are structuring solid—and often complex—Title IX teams
By: | Issue: May, 2017
April 12, 2017

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal assistance.
—20 U.S.C. § 1681(a), better known as Title IX

When those 36 words were signed into law in 1972, few could have imagined the impact they would have on higher education. Though the law was designed to ensure males and females have equal opportunity in education, Title IX was for many years primarily associated with athletics.

Yet today—in large part due to gains made in athletic parity, but also in response to well-publicized cases of sexual assault on campus—the law is much more closely associated with sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Title IX administration models

Staff size variations:

  • Some campuses may have 15 full-time administrators dedicated to Title IX
  • Others may have a single administrator with several non-Title IX responsibilities, too

It’s been nearly six years since the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter first outlined Title IX requirements pertaining to sexual harassment and sexual violence, and institutions continue to grapple with how to best create systems to uphold Title IX rights and respond to Title IX complaints.

In fact, as the About Us page on the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA) website explains, “Title IX compliance is all over the map.

“Nearly 30 years after the Department of Education mandated that school districts and colleges designate Title IX coordinators, we’re still not entirely sure what the appropriate role, functions and expectations of coordinators are.”

It’s no wonder, then, that there’s so much variation in Title IX administration teams across the country. “We have great diversity in higher ed and in institutions, so we have a lot of different models,” says Brett Sokolow, executive director of ATIXA.

“There’s not consensus in the field over structural best practices at this point. You have some campuses with 15 people working full time on Title IX. You have others who have one.”

Further complicating matters: No additional funding accompanied Title IX’s expanded purview. Sokolow says he’s impressed with the resources college have allocated since 2011, but adds that most operations are underfunded.

Hampered by limited resources, many institutions have adopted a gradual approach to compliance—an approach Sokolow calls “realistic given what funding parameters are and what the government’s expectations are.”

Whether you have a large or small budget, are at a huge public university or a small private college, tailoring systems for Title IX administration to the needs of the community can help create a welcoming and safe campus environment for all.

Title IX administration models (cont.)

Common approach:

  • Full-time, stand-alone Title IX coordinator, possibly with a dedicated administrative assistant
  • A team of deputy administrators from various departments assist in efforts
  • A few Title IX investigators assist with allegations

Reflexive, responsive Title IX teams

One “very prevalent model” for Title IX administration—when the institution can afford it—involves a standalone, full-time Title IX coordinator or dedicated Title IX office, Sokolow says. Yet, he adds, “It’s probably not even used by the majority of campuses at this time.”

In the model, there is typically a Title IX coordinator, plus three to six deputies, who may work in other departments or divisions. The team also includes Title IX investigators who report to the coordinator, and it may include a dedicated administrative assistant.

At other institutions, meanwhile, “the Title IX coordinator might be wearing 10 other hats,” says Liz Brown, sexual misconduct expert for EAB, a research company that works closely Title IX administrators.

At Neumann University, a private Roman Catholic college in Pennsylvania, the vice president of human resources and risk management is in charge of Title IX coordination.

Co-coordinators include the dean of students, the athletics and recreation director, the residence life director and a risk management specialist who is a member of the religious order that founded the school.

That specialist essentially spends all her time staying up to speed on Title IX law changes and working on training, says Alfred Mueller, dean of arts and sciences.

Neumann’s Title IX committee oversees annual training sessions, which are mandatory for all faculty and staff and cover the basics of the law, reporting requirements and the investigative process.

Students complete a separate awareness program, with online modules from a program called My Student Body (from the National Institute of Mental Health) and training materials from campaigns such as It’s On Us! (www.itsonus.org) and The Red Flag (www.theredflagcampaign.org).

At the University of New Hampshire, a public research university with 13,000 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students on its main Durham campus and 1,000 students at its Manchester campus, Title IX coordination is based in the Office of Equity and Affirmative Action.

Like at many higher ed institutions, by the time the Dear Colleague Letter was issued in 2011, UNH already had many groups and organizations on campus working on issues such as gender parity and decreasing sexual violence.

Its main campus is even home to the Prevention Innovations Research Center (PIRC), founded in 2006 and now internationally known for its research into decreasing sexual and relationship violence.

One of the first steps Jaime Nolan, vice president for community, equity and diversity, took toward building Title IX infrastructure when she was asked to lead UNH’s Title IX effort in the summer of 2015, was to meld these disparate departments and organizations.

Together, representatives discussed current efforts and ways to work together most effectively in the future, and solidified relationships so that the group could work together cohesively to create a safe, welcoming campus climate.

The steering committee now includes Title IX coordinator Donna Marie Sorrentino (hired in 2003), a representative from the general counsel office, the HR director, the dean of students and the campus police chief.

Nolan formed an additional Title IX advisory committee with about 20 members—including representatives from PIRC, residence life, athletics, human resources and the Sexual Harassment & Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP).

An exercise involved discussing what the members viewed as their central mission, Nolan says. That work helped team members understand the roles and boundaries of particular departments.

“What the Title IX office does is very different from what the advocacy unit does, and very different from what our researchers do,” Nolan says. “By better understanding what everybody does, we can best support each other in our efforts and build systems that work.”

Title IX administration models(cont.)

Example: Neumann University (Pennsylvania)

Enrollment: About 3,000

Taking the lead on Title IX: Vice president of human resources and risk management

Title IX co-coordinators: Dean of students, director of athletics and recreation, director of residence life, risk management specialist

Committee duties: Oversee mandatory annual training for faculty and staff, plus separate mandatory training for students

Title IX administration in action

At Clarion University, a public institution in Pennsylvania, Susanne Fenske, vice president of student affairs, serves as Title IX coordinator and chair of the university’s Title IX team.

Other members of the team include the director of judicial affairs, the university police chief, the athletic director, the director of social equity and a student affairs director from a satellite campus located about 45 minutes away.

The whole group meets monthly to review trends on campus regarding sexual violence and harassment, to discuss national Title IX issues and initiatives, and to develop policies and programming for preventing sexual violence and harassment. Each week, Fenske reviews all active Title IX cases with the chief of police and director of judicial affairs.

“From that consistent work, it became very clear to us that we had a significant concern with people making poor choices about relationships,” Fenske says.

The Title IX team completed a “gap analysis,” which pointed to a need for additional training to help students understand healthy versus unhealthy relationships, and how to access help if needed. The group is currently in the process of developing that training.

The investigation of alleged Title IX violations—which nearly all colleges face each year—is handled in different ways on different campuses. Some have dedicated Title IX investigators, or investigations may be conducted by staff who have undergone specialized training.

Title IX administration models (cont.)

Example: University of New Hampshire

Enrollment: 13,000 undergraduates, 2,000 graduate students on main Durham campus, plus 1,000 students at Manchester campus

Taking the lead on Title IX: Title IX coordinator based in the Office of Equity and Affirmative Action, and reporting to vice president for community, equity and diversity

Title IX steering committee: Human resources director, dean of students, chief of campus police, general counsel office representative

Title IX advisory committee: 20 members, including reps from Prevention Innovations Research Center, residence life, athletics, human resources, Sexual Harassment & Rape Prevention Program

At UNH, the Title IX coordinator manages investigations, working closely with the dean of students, campus police, and representatives of the Office of Community Standards and SHARPP, when appropriate. The Title IX coordinator also determines, in conjunction with the others, when an independent investigation is needed.

Best practices require colleges and universities to treat complainants and respondents fairly, and to complete investigations in a timely manner, typically within six weeks.

What’s next for Title IX

One of the perennial challenges of Title IX administration is that, as Sokolow says, “the minute we get our brain around what Title IX is, it changes.” Nationwide, Title IX coordinators and administrators are on alert, watching and waiting to see what guidance, if any, the federal government will give regarding the law.

“If the government leaves colleges to their own devices, which may be what happens under the Trump administration, then the question is, do we flounder with no guidance or direction, or would that give us a chance to develop programs that work best for our colleges without a gun to our heads?” Sokolow says.

“The truth is probably somewhere between those two.”

Jennifer L. W. Fink is a Wisconsin-based writer.