Preventing and Addressing Sexual Misconduct at MIT: A Faculty Primer
On October 27, MIT publicly released the results of its Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault Survey, along with a letter from Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart. The letter and accompanying report offer data and perspectives on the sexual misconduct that happens on our campus and reports some steps that are being taken to address this serious problem. We strongly urge every faculty member to read the Chancellor’s letter and to become informed about ways they can help our students and others who may come to them with concerns about sexual misconduct. This article offers background information and guidance to faculty members.
Addressing sexual assault is necessary to protect the rights of our community members to learn, live, and work in a safe environment free from sexual misconduct, harassment, and other forms of misconduct. Our response to ensure these rights is guided by our values, our institutional policies, and by the law.
Recent guidances on how to comply with Title IX and amendments to certain federal laws create new expectations for faculty members. To understand these, one must first have a little background in laws relating to gender discrimination.
Title IX of the U.S. Higher Education Amendment of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity receiving federal financial aid. Sexual assault and sexual harassment are forms of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights enforces Title IX.
While much of the initial focus of Title IX compliance was on ensuring equal access to athletic and academic opportunities regardless of gender, in 2011, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued a guidance – a statement of OCR’s enforcement policies – laying out substantive and procedural requirements for schools, colleges, and universities to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, including sexual assault and violence. These requirements include the designation of a Title IX Coordinator to oversee all Title IX complaints and to identify and address any patterns or systemic problems concerning sexual misconduct. At MIT, Jennifer Walsh, Manager of Employee Relations, is the Interim Title IX Coordinator for employees, including faculty, and Judy Robinson, Senior Associate Dean in the Office of the Dean for Student Life, is the Title IX Coordinator for students. There are also a set of Deputy Coordinators throughout MIT. In addition, MIT has appointed a Title IX Investigator, Sarah Rankin, to handle the investigation of complaints brought by or against students. Faculty members with concerns or questions about sexual misconduct of any kind should contact a Title IX Coordinator or Deputy Coordinator, preferably the one in their area. [A complete listing of Title IX Coordinators and Deputy Coordinators is available at: titleix.mit.edu/coordinators.]
In 2013, Congress passed a new law, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (Campus SaVE) Act, as part of a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. The Campus SaVE Act requires an education program to be in place for all new employees, including faculty, to promote the awareness of sexual assault, dating or domestic violence, and stalking. Additionally, the Campus SaVE Act amends the Clery Act of 1990, requiring MIT to publish statistics regarding all campus crimes, while maintaining the confidentiality of individuals reporting sexual misconduct. The Campus SaVE Act requires training for all new employees. At MIT, this is being offered through a 20-minute online module required for all new employees hired since July 1, 2014. Current employees, including faculty, are also encouraged to take the training at this time. [MIT certificates are required for the “Preventing Sexual Harassment” training module.]
In addition to required training for new employees, under the law MIT must implement “ongoing prevention and awareness campaigns for students and faculty.”
The Chancellor’s letter is an important step in this process. Another one is the notification to faculty and staff members about reporting obligations under Title IX, described next.
If a student comes to you – to any MIT employee – and discloses that they have or might have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault – then you are obligated to “do something.” We suggest taking the following steps:
The last obligation is significant: when an employee, including a faculty member, is informed about sexual misconduct, MIT is on notice and is obligated to respond promptly and equitably to eliminate any harassment, prevent any recurrence, and address any effects.
The concept of confidentiality needs mention. OCR makes a distinction between confidential resources (medical personnel, clergy members and, at MIT, Ombuds) and private resources (faculty, staff, Title IX coordinators, police). Only the confidential resources can guarantee confidentiality. All others have an obligation to report. With that said, all of them can and should be empathetic and supportive of our students.
As the recent survey suggests, victims most often tell friends and not anyone in an official capacity (not even confidential resources). We need to lower the barrier students may feel to speaking up. By informing the Title IX office, a faculty member does not force a student to file any formal complaint or even meet with the Title IX Investigator. All that will happen is that the Title IX Investigator will invite the student to talk, which the student is free to refuse with no consequence. However, even if the student does not want anything further done, information given to the Title IX Investigator may help to uncover a pattern that MIT is obligated to act on to prevent future sexual violence. As much as possible, any steps taken will remain the student’s decision.
We share the concerns of President Reif that “Sexual assault violates our core values. It has no place here.” We appeal to faculty members to help eliminate it at MIT. More information is available at the MIT Title IX Website.