by Andrea Stagg
Inside Higher Ed
“Holding Colleges Responsible” is the latest example in a slew of articles – many of them quoting the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education – that are meant to alarm anyone with a voice, and the author’s use of selective quotes out of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights’s response to FIRE only fans the flame.
At issue is whether the Education Department’s enforcement of a law and guidance that are designed to promote compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and prevent sexual harassment put free speech at risk. In particular, the recent cause for concern is language in the agreement between OCR, the Department of Justice, and the University of Montana, which the government called a “blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country.”
Readers should know that preserving free speech and academic freedom and ensuring an environment free from sexual harassment are not mutually exclusive goals, and OCR has never published guidance or decisions that aim to limit even the most explicitly sexual academic material.
The issue seems to be the department’s acknowledgment that conduct that is not yet severe or pervasive may still constitute sexual harassment. OCR clarified in a letter to FIRE that only severe or pervasive sexual harassment actually violates Title IX. The department’s view requires defining sexual harassment broadly and understanding the difference between an institution’s obligation to educate and proactively problem-solve and the obligation to “bang the gavel.”
The Office for Civil Rights’s “Dear Colleague” letter from April 4, 2011 is less concerned with gavel-banging and more concerned with how the complainant is treated during the reporting and grievance process. The outcome sought is the elimination of the hostile environment, if one exists, and maintaining a campus climate free from sexual harassment and violence — not the termination, suspension, or expulsion of each accused individual.
It is not new for an institution to encourage reporting so that it may determine whether the report warrants action. “See something, say something.” Surely not every forgotten bag contains explosives, but because citizen bystanders are not experts with bomb-sniffing German Shepherds, we are encouraged to report what we see.
Despite OCR’s recommendation for broad-based training and notification of sex discrimination definitions and procedures, students and employees are not experts in this area, and they are not expected to be equipped to make a final decision about whether actionable sex discrimination exists. That responsibility falls specifically to the Title IX coordinator or designee under the grievance procedures. By encouraging reporting of unwelcome conduct, the coordinator or designee also has the opportunity to spot patterns, which is a requirement of that job.
Imagine that 10 students report similar instances of sexual harassment (unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature) by another student or an employee that, individually, would not rise to the level of a hostile environment. Together, this conduct is a pattern of sexual harassment behavior that may create a hostile environment in a particular classroom, department or residence hall. Certainly, at the least, it warrants a conversation with and training for the accused individual.
The Education Department and higher education administrators are well aware of the First Amendment and academic freedom. Encouraging the campus community to report instances of sexual harassment and leaving the evaluation of such reports to designated experts is appropriate and lawful.