Sexual assault is a recognized problem on college campuses. In 2011 the U.S. Department of Education issued a directive mandating that colleges would be held responsible for investigating, adjudicating, and sanctioning all felony-level allegations of sexual assault. The federal policy has proved to be controversial because in many cases, students are being railroaded based on flimsy allegations of non-consensual sexual assault following a late-night hook-up. Such accusations can ruin students’ lives because they are forever labeled as a “sexual offender”.
Last summer the University of Tennessee reached a $2.48 million lawsuit settlement with several women who had experienced sexual assaults at the hands of fellow UT students. In the aftermath, a Title IX Commission was established under the office of UT President Joe DiPietro. The Commission members consisted of Elizabeth Conklin, University of Connecticut Title IX coordinator and Office of Institutional Equity associate vice president; Washington, D.C., attorney Stanley Brand; Janet Judge, Sports Law Associates president; and Nashville-area attorney Bill Morelli.
I attended the Commission’s Listening Session held at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on March 27. It was a closed meeting, open only to faculty and students. I was the only non-UT person in attendance, as far as I could tell. Several local media representatives were in the room but were immediately asked to leave. Some did interviews afterwards. Here’s one example.
There were about 200 people in attendance, the vast majority of whom were women. From their discussions, I got the impression that over 80% were assault or rape “victims.” I am not sure how the meeting was promoted, but the only people in attendance were those with an apparent agenda, plus several Resident Advisors (attendance may have been required for them).
The purpose of the meeting was to listen to the concerns of the attendees and make recommendations how to improve UT Title IX policies. There was no opportunity for persons to “testify,” only to respond to questions as they were posed. The leader of the commission, Elizabeth Conklin, focused solely on the “victim” perspective; there was no meaningful discussion about the broader process.
At the beginning they introduced Title IX by stating it was a law designed to protect women from sexual assault and rape. What? Doesn’t the purpose of Title IX include protecting men from the same problem? The way rape is defined on campuses, in terms of lack of consent, it would be easy for a man to be raped by a woman.
I informed them that I was an attorney and Licensed Clinical Social Worker who handled many of these cases on behalf of the accused students. I shared my experiences of working with the accused students and the lack of support available from the school, particularly the Title IX office. I mentioned that all of the men I have worked with became suicidal during the process.
I was the only person in attendance who said anything about the process needing to be more fair or impartial, or who brought up the need to support the accused students. No one seemed to be interested in hearing my perspective, as was apparent from their body language, and they did not respond to my statements.
Most of the discussion focused on how to make reporting easier for identified victims, and more education on how to report incidents. Education was one of their favorite topics, but largely for the benefit of women. There was one resident assistant who stated he lived in a male dormitory and believed better education about the definition of rape and assault was needed.
After the meeting, however, several of the women did approach me to offer encouraging comments. One woman said she was glad to hear from the other perspective, that she had not thought about support for the accused men. I explained how there are many false accusations — that was a perspective she had not considered.
My biggest concern is that the Commission is gathering information from a very select group of campus advocates. Apparently they did not want to hear from anyone who was an advocate for fairness or who was opposed to harsher penalties.
The Commission was established to remedy an alleged “hostile environment” for female students. How many persons attending the Listening Session appreciated the irony of the hostile demeanor of the women in the room expressed towards persons with different views?
Michelle Owens is an attorney who specializes in due process at universities.