A Polarizing Report

An external review of Occidental's Title IX policies and procedures produces new recommendations while renewing existing frustrations

A comprehensive external review of Occidental's Title IX policies and procedures makes an extensive series of recommendations to improve the College's response to sexual misconduct, from finalizing an interim policy and conducting a climate survey to centralizing education and training programs and creating an interdepartmental team to assess each case.

The centerpiece of the 130-page report by Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez—former prosecutors and nationally known experts on the institutional response to sexual assault from the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper Hamilton—examines how the College handled 17 sexual misconduct cases in 2011-12 and 2012-13. While it faults Oxy for "insufficient training, inartful communication, lack of coordination, insufficient resources, poor judgment, and missed opportunities," it finds no evidence of "ill will or malice on the part of administrators."

The report also provides a detailed assessment of the rapidly evolving regulatory and legal framework surrounding the issue, raises questions about the media's coverage of sexual assault, and highlights the challenges colleges and universities face in investigating conduct without the same resources and toolkit as law enforcement.

But the report left neither the administration nor its critics fully satisfied. At a November 4 town hall on campus, much of the criticism directed at the report focused on its description of "a stark polarization of the community" and a lack of trust that has "damaged the dialogue and in some cases effectively silenced members of the College community who have expressed fear of ostracism and retaliation by either the administration or the activist community."

Oxy is a "complex, often antagonistic place because people really care," said Nalsey Tinberg, professor of mathematics and Faculty Council president. "I'm disappointed in the report. It's not objective and not helpful."

While some critics suggested the report paints activists in a negative light, President Jonathan Veitch disagreed, saying he thinks it points to a problem the campus community has had in having difficult discussions on important issues. He began the hourlong town hall by praising "the commitment and courage of students who stood up and spoke up about this issue and got us to a better place."

Veitch went on to characterize the report as "illuminating, frustrating, and long-winded. … It doesn't go as far as I'd like. It is a partial report—the beginning of a conversation, and not the end of one." Ruth Jones, the College's full-time Title IX coordinator, took a similar view, calling the report "an additional resource, not a blueprint for the future."

The 17 complaints of sexual misconduct reviewed by Smith and Gomez involved a total of 12 respondents. Of those, eight were found responsible, and five were ultimately expelled. One received a one-semester suspension; one received probation as the most significant sanction received; and one received community service and an educational sanction. Five of the 17 cases took more than 100 days to resolve, far longer than the 60-day guideline suggested by the U.S. Department of Education. However, each of those cases was reported late in the school year (April or May) or involved multiple allegations, the report notes.

In line with one of Pepper Hamilton's chief recommendations, the College continues to move ahead with its effort to create a permanent sexual misconduct policy, Jones told the town hall. A newly formed, 14-member Campus Committee on Sexual Responsibility & Misconduct (CCSRM) made up of faculty, staff, and students has been charged with finalizing that policy. Among the issues the committee will be asked to address are defining consent (activists support a verbal-only definition, as compared to the affirmative consent policy now in place) and which sanctions should apply to the full range of conduct.

Consent, sanctions, and Oxy's designation of all faculty as responsible employees—which requires them to pass on all reports of sexual misconduct to the Title IX coordinator—were addressed in detail by the CCSRM's predecessor, the Sexual Misconduct Advisory Board (SMAB), which issued its own set of recommendations in August. SMAB recommended adoption of a verbal consent standard, called for more study on the sanctions issue, and urged that faculty not be designated as responsible employees.

In a formal response to SMAB's recommendations released December 4, Jones says that the designation of faculty as responsible employees is consistent with the guidance provided by the U.S. Department of Education and necessary to effectively assess potential risks to the community. She also stressed that a report to the Title IX coordinator does not mean that a disciplinary process will automatically be triggered or the respondent notified. As for sanctions, Jones says she will ask the CCSRM to carefully consider the issue. "This work should include a consideration of whether a more limited range of sentencing options is appropriate for certain offenses," she says.

The goal is to have the permanent policy in place by the beginning of the 2015-16 academic year, Jones said. In the meantime, a campus climate survey—another Pepper Hamilton recommendation—built around the recommendations of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault was sent to all students February 16.  "My objective is to use the results of the survey to better inform our prevention and policy efforts.  It will also create a baseline for the assessment of our efforts," Jones says. "Then, over the summer, I hope to put in place a more fine-tuned assessment and evaluation plan."

Training efforts continue to move forward, she adds. More than 600 faculty and staff have received basic Title IX training since Jones' arrival last February.

College officials still have no word as to when the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights investigation into allegations of Title IX violations—launched in April 2013—will be completed. "We can't wait for the OCR report, so we will continue to move forward," Jones says.

The full Pepper Hamilton report can be found here.