Vice President / President-elect, Colgate chapter of AAUP
As an officer of the Colgate chapter of AAUP, I believe it is important to maintain this forum as a place for the open expression of ideas and information. The ideas expressed in individual posts, including this one, reflect the opinions of their authors, and not necessarily those of Colgate’s AAUP chapter as a whole. The blog provides a window on faculty thoughts about issues and can provoke useful debate. For all these reasons, I feel compelled to write a reply to a previous post, “Civil Rights Lawsuit against Colgate.” The subject of that post is a pending lawsuit against Colgate and its officers, brought by a student who was disciplined after being charged with an alleged assault against his girlfriend. I was not involved in the case and have no direct knowledge of it. [Full disclosure: I do have some EGP training, though I have never sat on a case and even suspended my membership during the past year because of other responsibilities.]
Thus this post does not concern the particular case now going forward, but rather, more broadly, the difficult situation that these sorts of cases have always created. Colleges and universities were additionally put on notice by the federal government three years ago. The Obama administration’s April 4, 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter announced a new enforcement direction for Title IX, stating that, “The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ rights to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.” The nineteen-page letter made clear that colleges and universities were going to be held to a higher standard of accountability on this issue, and led to reforms on campuses throughout the country. Colgate’s EGP, or Equity Grievance Panel, was created in response to this letter. The full letter is available online:
Colleges thus have a serious legal responsibility to ensure that all their students have a safe campus, even as they try to be fair in adjudicating inherently messy cases. The result of my June 9 Google search on “colleges and sexual assault cases” turned up, in the “news” section of the search, a juxtaposition of two articles that illustrate the difficult situation facing colleges today: “More college men are fighting back against sexual misconduct cases,” from the Los Angeles Times (June 7, 2014), v. “Suspension isn’t enough: Universities are letting students off way too easy for sexual assault,” from Slate (June 2014).
The three men “fighting back” are bringing lawsuits against Vassar, the University of Michigan, and Duke University. Similar suits—that is, cases brought against their universities by students disciplined for committing sexual assault—have been filed against Occidental College, Columbia University, Xavier University, Swarthmore, and Delaware State, to name only a few. The “three” are all basing their cases on alleged civil rights abuses and due process issues surrounding the procedure, as in the case against Colgate.
On the other side of the issue, the Slate article notes that students have recently filed lawsuits against Brown, Columbia, and Stanford for their alleged failure to act upon complaints of sexual assault. The author praises Duke as “one of a few schools with a tough new policy.” (See Duke, above, being sued by a student they expelled under this tough new policy.) Recent open letters from women from Harvard and Williams have expressed frustration with campus policies that failed to provide remedies against those who assaulted them. (“Dear Harvard: You Win,” The Harvard Crimson, March 31, 2014; “Williams College roiled by report of rape,” The Boston Globe, May 24, 2014.) And early in May the Obama administration announced an inquiry into the handling of sexual assault cases on 55 (now 60) campuses, including Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Boston University, the University of Chicago, Swarthmore, the University of Southern California, and others. The list of those under scrutiny was released by the White House as part of publicizing a “sexual assault task force aimed at pressuring schools to better comply with federal law and prevent sexual attacks” (“55 Colleges Named in Federal Inquiry into Handling of Sexual Assault Cases,” New York Times, May 2, 2014, “The Government’s New List,” Insidehighered.com, May 2, 2014, and boston.com, May 29, 2014, for the increase to 60).
My thanks to the poster for including extracts from the plaintiff’s case, a case that stemmed from allegations of physical assault in the context of a relationship. To me it is clear, even from this one-sided plaintiff’s view of the matter, that there are very different ways to interpret the actions that were taken at critical junctures—in other words, there’s another side to the story. I would like to say that we will eventually hear the other side of the case, but we may not; lawsuits often settle, and not always equitably. Perhaps that is a cynical view, but it reflects my own experience, some twenty years ago, when I was a part of a large group of faculty, staff, and administrators sued because of a verdict we rendered in a case of sexual assault. Whatever happens here, it is important to remember that there are (at least) two sides to this narrative, even if we don’t ultimately hear them.
I agree wholeheartedly with the previous poster that “faculty have a role to play in efforts to address the issue of sexual assault on campus . . . while respecting the rights of both victims and accused.” We have a responsibility to ensure fair process and a full hearing for all our students, whether accusers or accused. We also have a responsibility to try to create a campus climate that discourages such assaults. We’re educators; we should all try to educate our students on these matters in any way we can, and not assume that these issues are the sole responsibility of a small group of faculty, administrators, and staff grouped around the EGP.
I also support the Equity Grievance process as an indication that we are not content to allow the assumptions and practices that have governed social life, not only here but in society as a whole, to go unchallenged. That doesn’t mean that we will always handle cases with perfect fairness. Panels in these cases deal with retractions, obfuscations, misunderstandings, and genuinely poor memories. Our disciplinary authorities are sometimes forced to make decisions in an instant, perhaps from imperfect information, that are then put under a microscope for months. The stark, harsh categories of right and wrong created by lawsuits conceal the ambiguities of real life. As a faculty member who came to Colgate in 1982, I support the Equity Grievance panel as an attempt to deal with sexual violence on campus. Undoubtedly it will go through an evolutionary process as we gain further experience with it. But it’s the right thing to do. It’s also the law.