A third-party assessment of Cal Poly Humboldt's Title IX Office responsible for investigating and resolving allegations of sexual assault, sexual harassment and discrimination on campus found the office is hampered by understaffing, "communications challenges" and a lack of trust on campus.
The report from the law firm Cozen O'Conner — which came as a part of the firm's review of all 23 California State University campuses — comes after the firm specializing in business law and government relations briefed the California State University Board of Trustees in May on its systemwide findings. Those included widespread understaffing and under resourcing, a pervasive distrust in leadership, lack of accountability and prevention education, and an inability for CSU Title IX offices to effectively address "other conduct of concern," or behavior that is disruptive but does not constitute a violation of sexual harassment or discrimination policies.
After the release of the systemwide review, Cal Poly Humboldt Title IX Coordinator David Hickcox told the Journal he believed staffing, prevention education and addressing "other conduct of concern" were issues his campus would have to work to address, but he said the trust gap between administrators and the campus community was a CSU level issue, not one at CPH.
But Cozen O'Conner's report makes very clear its investigators felt otherwise, identifying it as a pervasive problem on a campus they felt had a comparatively solid Title IX infrastructure in place — one that they said, in fact, stands above others in certain areas.
To compile the CPH review, Cozen O'Conner's Maureen Holland and Cara Sawyers spent three days on campus conducting 40 interviews with campus stakeholders and attending two forums in which students, faculty and staff shared their personal stories. Additionally, they held meetings via Zoom with faculty, staff and students who requested them, conducted a survey of 562 students, faculty, staff and administrators, and invited people to email them to share information.
The review found that CPH's Title IX office is generally responsive and helpful, though it remains understaffed with three full-time employees — two more than it had just a few years ago, who were hired after the university found "significant deficiencies" in the office's recordkeeping and case management, according to the report — who combined handled 87 reports in 2021-2022. The office's communications strategies are a point of concern, the report notes, adding that some of its operations also need to be formalized in written policies and procedures. The office should also separate out its outreach, intake and support functions from its investigative branch, the report states, though it concedes current staffing levels make this difficult if not impossible.
And it seems many of the problems are interrelated with the understaffing, which makes it difficult for the office to communicate with other parties and departments, which contributes to the trust gap.
"We did learn that communications could be improved in order to further develop trust and working relationships," the report states. "For example, from an administrator we learned that there is a perceived 'black hole' around Title IX/(Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation Prevention) when a responsible employee makes a report to the office. Another administrator told us, 'It's hard to reassure others that the process works if you don't know if or how it does.'"
The report recommends making sure all third-party reporters are contacted to be informed that they will not get updates from the Title IX office but can continue to communicate and support the student themselves with an offer to answer any questions the reporter might have.
"These communications will go a long way towards building trust and understanding in the Title IX/DHR process for administrators, staff and faculty that work with students," the report states.
Additionally, the report notes that some high-profile recent events have added to the erosion of trust on campus.
"Many faculty tied their distrust to recent events, including the retreat of a previous dean to the faculty, presidential public statements, or the university's response to concerns about student basic needs," the report states, adding that, "what emerged was — as one person put it — a sense of 'deep pain in the community.'"
That "deep pain" was on full display last November, when after hearing an outcry from numerous faculty and staff members concerned that the campus was at a breaking point with its handling of Title IX cases, with some saying they feared reprisal for speaking publicly, the Cal Poly Humboldt Academic Senate voted unanimously to pass a resolution in support of sexual assault survivors. Some speakers also addressed the situation with former Dean John Lee referenced in the Cozen O'Conner report, in which he was allowed to return to a classroom teaching position due to a clause in his contract after he was fired from his administrative role after a campus investigation found he'd groped two colleagues. The resolution explicitly noted that President Tom Jackson Jr.'s comments during a speech at the university's fall welcome event "led to additional harm and a feeling of distrust."
During the address, Jackson appeared to veer off script to address Title IX, saying erroneously that it was designed to keep disputes behind closed doors and to resolve them amicably, and that survivors who share their stories publicly were doing so to "celebrate or promote it for personal gain" or taking "a nip at the university." Months later, Jackson issued a statement apologizing for the remarks, saying they failed to articulate his "true message of support" for those who have experienced harm on campus.
As to formal investigations of Title IX complaints themselves, Cozen O'Conner's lawyers reviewed 10 recently completed investigative reports from 2020, 2021 and 2022 and found that, with one exception, the reports "reflected a thorough and impartial collection of evidence" and were well-written and clear. In four of the cases, timeliness in completing the investigations was an issue, the report notes, later recommending the university hire at least one additional investigator, in part, to avoid investigative delays.
CPH's Title IX office received high praise for its annual reports, which go "above and beyond" what is required and stand "as an example to other CSU institutions." CPH similarly got high praise for its Campus Response Team — provided through a partnership with the North Coast Rape Crisis Team — which provides a unique level of free, confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The report repeatedly states that collaboration and communication are challenges that need to be addressed, noting that while CPH has robust prevention and outreach efforts there is little coordination between them, stating that misconceptions about the process remain pervasive.
Troublingly, the report makes repeated reference to an "impaired" or "strained" relationship between the campus' Sexual Assault Prevention Committee and Hickcox, noting at one point that he has consequently started sending an investigator to represent the Title IX office at the committee's meetings. The two parties, the report states, "may benefit from facilitated dialogue or mediation and/or engaging in direct conversation about how" they and other partners "can best work together."
This finding of the report seems to make it even more noteworthy that Jackson chose not to include anyone from the Sexual Assault Prevention Committee to serve on the campus team tasked with informing how the Cozen O'Conner report's recommendations should be implemented. Committee Chair Maxwell Schnurer sent a letter to the Academic Senate saying it was a "shame" Jackson chose not to give the committee, or the California Faculty Association, the Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion or cultural centers on campus, a seat at the table for implementation discussions.
Jackson's team at Cal Poly Humboldt consists of seven administrators (Hickcox, Interim Associate Vice President for Faculty Affairs Kimberly White, Chief Human Resources Officer Deborah Doel-Hammond, Interim Dean of Students Adrienne Colegrave-Raymond, Senior Director of Housing Donyet King, Vice President of Administration and Finance Sherie Gordon and Safety Services Coordinator Xena Pastor-Nulia), one student (Associated Students President Juan Guerrero), one professor (James Woglom) and a coach (women's soccer head coach Grant Landy).
That leaves students and faculty with a minority voice, outnumbered by administrators three to one, as the team looks to inform the university's efforts to implement Cozen O'Conner's recommendations.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com.