Nearly ten years ago, I was assaulted in my first semester of undergrad. It is because of this experience that I can tell you that having an independent Title IX Coordinator, whose only function at and investment in the university is that role, is critical for all students.
The experience of being assaulted and working with the Judicial Affairs Office, and not a Title IX Coordinator, was a formative experience that drives me to speak up about this issue at Drew. When reporting my assault in January 2010, Title IX guidelines were not included in the Student Resources at my college. I had to learn about the avenues of recourse to which I was entitled through my own research and through connections with other survivors. While Drew does include information in its handbook and on its website on Title IX, there is something familiar about the administration’s silence on the changes made to this office that concerns me.
Last semester, I was part of an effort at the Theological School to educate students on Title IX. This was part of an initiative I worked on while serving as the co-President of the Theological Student Association. When we learned that reporting guidelines for sex-based harassment, as well as power-based violence and harassment, were not fully understood by our community, we knew that we had to do something to educate the student body. As a result we hosted an educational forum led by the former Title IX Coordinator Emily Ralph. We did this with the support of the Theological School’s administration, and there was further talk continuing these educational efforts in the spring. This suggested to me that 1. there was a willingness on behalf of some of the administration to work to educate students, and 2. that the University and its Title IX office, no matter its structuring, needs to be more proactive in educating the whole community about its rights.
However, given that we were not (and have not as of this writing) been formally informed of the changes that have been made to the Title IX office, makes me question that the former sentiment holds and that the latter is likely to happen.
The student body was aware to some extent of the lay off measures the University was pursuing. However, in a meeting I attended as a student representative last November with Dean Javier Viera, Provost Debra Liebowitz and student leaders, we were told that these cuts would not include “student facing” personnel. It was also during this time that we were planning our spring Title IX forums. To find out in January, only through Facebook, that the Title IX office had been restructured was a shock.
As of this writing, there has not been an official statement from the Drew administration regarding this restructuring. President MaryAnn Baenninger, however, provided comment to Vox, saying, “With this distributed model, there will be more people who will be able to offer a knowledgeable approach that will help our whole community.” Having more people on the Title IX team may give the appearance that more resources have been allocated to its enforcement, however this is seriously flawed. Knowing how difficult it can be to vocalize sexual assault to anyone, I can attest to the way that this distributed model could easily backfire. Sharing sensitive information with a large group of people while already in a vulnerable state is not likely. If Drew seeks to make sure each survivor receives a fair and just resolution to assaults, this begins with structuring of the office so that survivors feel that they can safely report incidents to a caring Title IX coordinator who will work for a just resolution. President Baenninger's statement that this is a move in the right direction does not suffice in convincing me. If Drew simply wants reporting to decline because it will look better for their university, this restructuring tactic may just work, though it is antithetical to all that Drew purports to be. Despite the significant numerical increase in Title IX personnel on campus, this term we have had less communication and engagement from those persons in this capacity than from the singular Title IX Coordinator in semesters past.
This situation at Drew University is not happening in isolation. The Department of Education, under the leadership of Betsy DeVos, is undermining the rights of complainants under Title IX. The voices of survivors, of all ages, genders and races, are just beginning to be heard. Our stories have been brushed aside, and we have not yet received the justice we seek. Our theological ethics demand that we listen to those who have existed on the margins of our societies, as well as those who have been historically written into silence. In Sisters in the Wilderness, Delores Williams attends critically to the story of Hagar, who was not liberated in the stories of Exodus that have been championed by liberation theologians. If we take seriously the claim that the Christian God is a God of liberation and justice, let us not repeat the mistakes of our traditions - religiously, academically, legally. We must live into the ethics we purport to believe, preach and teach at Drew Theological School.
Sarah is a Master in Divinity student.