The law firm Cozen O'Connor released a preliminary oral report on the findings of its investigation of the CSU System's Title IX program at a recent CSU Board of Trustees meeting. The firm visited Cal Poly Humboldt in December, with its attorneys hosting open forums for students and staff. In addition to campus visits, Cozen O'Connor reported receiving nearly 18,000 survey responses, as well as replies sent to a dedicated email address.
The audit findings highlighted areas of concern that reduce the efficacy of Title IX reporting processes across the CSU system. The audit looked at responses to Title IX and Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation (DHR) violations, and also "other conduct of concern," which refers to infractions that may not amount to Title IX policy violations or discrimination based on protected status but were still disruptive. Though these concerns may not require official investigations, they reflect the culture of a campus.
Gina Maisto Smith and Leslie M. Gomez of Cozen O'Connor presented five core findings from their review. The first is that the current system infrastructure is lacking. Of 23 campuses, 19 have combined DHR and Title IX responsibilities into one office. Another infrastructure issue is poor record-keeping systems. Smith says without the ability to see patterns or the bandwidth to address other conduct of concern, a campus can't create a supportive culture. The audit says there is diminished trust in Title IX offices due to the repercussions of work overload.
On one CSU campus, "a Title IX coordinator also oversees human resources, equal opportunity, DHR, ADA, whistleblowers, and Clery [Act reporting]," Smith said. "And that one person is supported by one individual on a campus of 10,000."
The second core finding showed that prevention and education programming are not enough. The firm found training required of all staff and students does not do enough to change the culture of campuses, and employees lack an understanding of reporting responsibilities. The third core finding was that there is no consistent process for reporting, resolving, documenting or tracking "other conduct of concern," with anything that does not amount to a policy violation but is brought to a Title IX office's attention often left unaddressed.
The fourth finding was a lack of accountability throughout the system, with no formal standards, processes for implementing systemwide policy, or quality control and assurance in place.
"Accountability is a significant issue across the system," Smith said. "Few cases reach formal resolutions, and very few are formally investigated."
A Journal analysis of Title IX reports from all 23 CSU campuses for the 2020-2021 academic year, the most recent for which they are available, found that only 4 percent of the nearly 1,000 reports that year were formally investigated, with someone held responsible in only 28 percent of cases investigated.
Cozen O'Connor's fifth key finding is a trust gap exists across all CSU campuses. On Humboldt's campus, this gap was publicly addressed when the Academic Senate passed a resolution in support of survivors and charged that University President Tom Jackson Jr.'s comments that Title IX was designed to keep allegations of misconduct between closed doors during a fall welcome address led to "additional harm and a feeling of distrust."
"We've heard extensively from students, staff and faculty about distrust of senior leadership and compliance processes across universities," Gomez said. "The most common refrain we heard at the CSU is a perception of institutional bias. The default conclusion is that campus administrators act to protect the institution rather than care about individuals who have been harmed."
In a statement on the Cozen O'Connor presentation, CSU Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester described the audit as an opportunity to better the CSU system to align with its core values.
"While the work will indeed be difficult, it also presents a unique and invaluable opportunity to strengthen our culture of compliance and our culture of care as we strive to create and sustain safe, welcoming and inclusive environments across the CSU, where students, faculty and staff can thrive personally, professionally and intellectually, free from discrimination, harassment and sexual misconduct," Koester said.
The California Faculty Association has critiqued Cozen O'Connor's investigation as a "performative review by a risk management law firm" and "not enough to fix systemic sexual violence issues."
Jackson, like his colleagues across the CSU System, was tasked to form a team of students, faculty, staff stakeholders and university Title IX and DHR staff to apply Cozen O'Connor's campus-specific recommendations. Amanda LeBlanc, the executive director of the North Coast Rape Crisis Team, which runs Cal Poly Humboldt's Campus Advocate Team, noted that Jackson did not include survivor-forward advocacy organizations on the implementation team.
"It's concerning because it means the survivor voice may not be represented," LeBlanc said. "Survivors are speaking out. Staff, faculty and students are all speaking out and saying Cal Poly Humboldt doesn't feel like a safe space."
Ollie Hancock (they/them) is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach them at (707) 442-1400, extension 317, or firstname.lastname@example.org.