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CSU's Title IX Audit Comes to Humboldt

Investigators arrive to a campus under cloud cast by president's remarks

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With Cal Poly Humboldt at what its local California Faculty Association chapter president called a "breaking point" over its handling of sexual harassment and assault complaints, a pair of attorneys are slated to come to campus next week as a part of the California State University's audit of its Title IX system.

The attorneys — Maureen Holland and Cara Sawyer, of the Pennsylvania firm Cozen O'Connor, which specializes in business law, litigation and government relations — are due to arrive in Arcata to start three days of interviews Dec. 6. The visit comes a month after simmering frustrations at Cal Poly Humboldt boiled into public view at an Academic Senate meeting, with the Senate passing a resolution in support of sexual assault survivors that charged that comments university President Tom Jackson Jr. made during a fall welcome address several months earlier "have led to additional harm and a feeling of distrust" as individual faculty members openly expressed dismay at Jackson's comments and what they described as a "culture of fear" on campus.

Over the course of more than three minutes during his Aug. 17 address, Jackson repeatedly described Title IX as being designed to resolve complaints privately "behind the doors" and implied that survivors who tell their stories publicly are doing so "for personal gain" or to take a "nip at the university," noting their stories are then read by prospective students, "shooting [the university] in the foot" in recruiting efforts. He also asked people to imagine complaints or scrutiny being directed at them but made no reference to the experiences of survivors. Title IX experts, advocates and members of the campus community criticized Jackson's comments as both ignorant of Title IX's purpose — to end institutional discrimination based on gender — and seeming more sympathetic to perpetrators than those they harass and assault.

Nearly three months after the address (and 10 days after the Journal's Oct. 27 cover story "Jadence Clifton Comes Forward" highlighted his remarks, juxtaposing them with a former student's Title IX reporting experience), Jackson issued an apology, saying his words had been "heard and perceived differently than I intended." He then apologized because he "failed in articulating his true message of support."

Responding to Journal inquiries sent to California State University Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester and each of the 18 CSU trustees about Jackson's comments and the Senate's response, CSU spokesperson Michael Uhlenkamp said Koester is aware of the situation.

"The chancellor is and has been aware of the comments, as well as how those comments have been received by the campus community," Uhlenkamp wrote in an email to the Journal, adding that "supporting and bolstering" a culture of compliance and a culture of care across the CSU's 23 campuses is a priority for the chancellor and the CSU Board of Trustees. "President Jackson's recent clarifying message to the community reinforces his dedication to this critical work."

'An Inflection Point'

In his email, Uhlenkamp notes the CSU system has taken "specific actions" to improve Title IX practices and policies. Included in those actions was the hiring of Cozen O'Conner to examine Title IX practices and policies across the system's 23 campuses, which was announced on the heels of a scandal surrounding former CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro's handling of sexual harassment complaints while he was the president of Fresno State University.

"The CSU is at an inflection point, with a unique opportunity to fundamentally change the way we treat people: our diverse and talented students, our world-class faculty and staff, our partners and friends," Koester said in a statement at the time. "To approach the systemwide Title IX assessment as some sort of bureaucratic check-the-box exercise would be to squander that opportunity. That will not happen."

Not everyone is convinced, however.

A sample campus visit template offered by Cozen O'Conner indicates the firm's attorneys plan to meet with university Title IX coordinators and discrimination, harassment and retaliation administrators, provosts, deans of students, vice presidents, campus law enforcement Title IX teams, housing administrators and diversity and inclusion coordinators. But of the 21 time slots on the template, only one is for the attorneys to speak to a victim advocate, and no where does the firm indicate it plans to speak to survivors who have traversed the campus' Title IX process.

The California Faculty Association dubbed the audit a "performative review by a risk management law firm" in a post on its website, saying it is concerned it "will not go far enough in remedying the CSU."

At Cal Poly Humboldt, most asked by the Journal indicated they don't know what to expect during Cozen O'Connor's visit to campus, nor how much faith to put in it. Academic Senate Chair Monty Mola said the Senate hopes the process will be as open as possible, and that any final recommendations shared with the campus will be made public.

On Nov. 30, an email went out to all faculty and staff advising that Cozen O'Connnor will be holding an open forum on campus to gather their input and feedback on Title IX issues. It will be held in the Great Hall from 3:45 to 4:45 p.m. on Dec. 6, with speakers given three minutes apiece. Additionally, the email advised, comments can be sent by email confidentially to CalStateReview@cozen.com, and the same email address can be used to request an individual Zoom meeting with the firm's investigators.

Amanda LeBlanc, the executive director of the North Coast Rape Crisis Team, which runs Cal Poly Humboldt's Campus Advocate Team, said her team will be a participant in the firm's review. Gauging by what she's heard from other advocates in the CSU system, LeBlanc said she expects there will be an accounting of policies and procedures, but she doesn't really have an expectation of what will result.

"I'm hoping it's a transparent process that helps the internal work of the university to become a place where perpetrators are held accountable and survivors are empowered and feel safe," she said. "What I hope is that it informs the Title IX process as we try to figure out how to do this in a more survivor-centered way."

An Outlier

Even without the controversy surrounding Jackson's remarks and some recent high-profile cases (in addition to the Journal's story about Clifton's case, earlier this year USA Today published an investigation into former Dean John Lee, detailing how he was fired from his administrative role after a campus investigation found he'd groped two colleagues but was allowed to return to his teaching position under a "retreat" clause in his contract), there's reason to believe Cozen O'Connor's attorneys may have reason to take a closer look at Humboldt.

While Title IX requires individual universities to publish annual compliance reports, detailing how many Title IX reports were made by students and employees, how many were investigated and how many resulted in disciplinary action, the CSU system does not aggregate those reports to make the data available on a systemwide level. This makes comparisons difficult.

But when the Journal compiled data from all 23 CSU campuses for the 2020-2021 year, the most recent for which the annual reports were available for all campuses, it found Cal Poly Humboldt is indeed an outlier.

Humboldt saw an average of one Title IX report filed that year for every 191 students, more than double the system rate of one report per 439 students. For the year, Humboldt trailed only Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which saw one report generated for every 153 students, in per-capita reporting rates.

Some see the numbers as a troubling sign that Humboldt might have higher rates of sexual harassment and sexualized violence than other campuses, while others say the numbers might just mean more of what's happening is actually getting reported.

A number of people interviewed by the Journal in recent months have pointed to strides made by the campus in efforts to be more responsive to Title IX reports. Specifically, since 2020, the campus' Title IX Office has increased staffing from one to three people, hiring an investigator and an analyst, while also redesigning the office's website to make reporting and support services more accessible. Further, the office has also worked to better engage with the campus community, presenting at clubs and putting on trainings for campus departments.

It's also worth noting that the university's bystander intervention and prevention program, CHECK IT, which launched in 2014, has been steadily growing, working to help students recognize the dynamics of sexualized violence, arm them with intervention strategies and inform them about resources and support.

LeBlancsaid she doesn't believe higher rates of reporting necessarily reflect higher rates of harm.

"I believe harm happens everywhere," she said. "And I believe that a higher rate of reporting does mean survivors are aware of how to and feel comfortable coming forward. I also believe there's much more that can be done as far as intervention and prevention at Cal Poly Humboldt and all other CSU campuses. So I don't believe it's an either/or. I also believe that when words of harm come from leadership that those [reporting] rates may go down, and that it is much easier to break down that trust than it is to build it up."

Moving Forward

In the aftermath of the Academic Senate's unanimous vote to pass the resolution that started with the simple statement that it "believes survivors when they report harm," there have been some signs of movement.

Mola, the Senate's chair, said the body's executive committee, which includes administrators, has already made headway in discussing the creation of designation of an employee "navigator" position to help campus faculty and staff identify where to turn for help with issues like bullying or harassment, saying it's a resource that currently doesn't exist.

Libbi Miller, meanwhile, was one of the faculty members who addressed the Academic Senate before it passed the resolution. As the chair of the School of Education, Miller noted at the meeting that Lee, the former dean fired for misconduct, as reported by USA Today, is due to return to the school's teaching schedule in the spring. Miller said Lee was slated to teach required administrative credential, masters of art in education and liberal studies elementary education courses. Some students who didn't want to be in Lee's classes — including some survivors — had asked for alternative courses that meet their requirements, Miller said, explaining that she'd scoured the course catalogs looking for offerings that fit but they didn't exist.

Reached Nov. 29, Miller said she was limited in what she could say.

"I can say that, in our liberal studies elementary education program, we're working on opening another section to provide students with another option," she said, adding that efforts to address the concerns she expressed at the Senate meeting, as well as those of students, remain ongoing.

For her part, LeBlanc said she sees there have been strides on campus, where pockets of "survivor-centeredness" are working to improve systems and make the campus more responsive. She said she's hopeful the Cozen O'Connor audit and the attention to Title IX issues will result in positive changes. North Coast Rape Crisis, she said, is also looking to re-start its volunteer program, training community members to answer crisis lines and support neighbors in need.

"We need everyone to get involved in this work — there is no way we are going to be able to fulfill our mission of ending sexualized violence with a staff of seven of us," she said, adding that anyone wanting to volunteer who can pass a criminal background check should reach out through the team's crisis line [(707) 445-2881] or website (ncrct.org) for information on its upcoming training in January.

But to the last point, LeBlanc said on campus and in the community, response programs — whether Title IX or law enforcement — will never end sexualized violence.

"We need to do more about prevention not being the responsibility of the survivor but the responsibility of the community," she said. "Rape prevention is: Don't rape people; respect people's boundaries; ask for consent; understand what consent is — all of that. I think we need to do better about that as a culture and as a campus."

Editor's Note: This story was updated from the version that appeared in print to include additional information received after deadline.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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