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OU Title IX looks to make changes, but some say students need more resources

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Title IX

An infographic detailing the types of cases OU's Title IX authorities handle. 

Amid recent criticism of OU's Title IX reporting systems, the university’s Institutional Equity Office has announced new hires and increased training with the aim of restoring community trust.

But some say this won't be nearly enough to fix the extensive problems within the office.

The new hires include an intake coordinator, who would be the first contact a sexual misconduct victim has with the office, and a new equal opportunity investigator. Faith Ferber, a campus organizer with Know Your IX, a group that researches and advocates Title IX issues at colleges and universities, said ideally OU should hire another Title IX coordinator to help oversee the office.

The Institutional Equity Office received more than 300 reports in the past 12 months, according to an August press release, and the number increases every year. OU employs Bobby Mason as both its equal opportunity officer and Title IX coordinator, and Larry Naifeh as both associate athletic director and associate Title IX coordinator.

Ferber said Naifeh’s positions with both the university’s athletics department and Title IX could be a potential conflict of interest. She also said having another Title IX coordinator could help make the entire process go more smoothly. 

While the Department of Education only requires universities to employ one Title IX coordinator, Ferber said some student activists have proposed having one Title IX coordinator per 2,000 students. 

“Now, that doesn't happen,” Ferber said. “That would be a lot of Title IX coordinators. Most schools have one, maybe two. But it also depends on the demand.”

Another common concern with Title IX offices across the nation arises when a Title IX coordinator is not in possession of a law degree, Ferber said.

“If your Title IX coordinators or your sexual misconduct officers don't have those degrees, I would definitely want to find out more about what kind of training and expertise they have to be handling those kinds of cases,” Ferber said.

Mason spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy, received a bachelor’s in human resources from Southwestern College and a master’s in management from Webster University, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Of those credentials, Ferber said she sees an extensive military background as a red flag. The military has a history of “sweeping sexual violence under the rug,” Ferber said, and that she would worry someone coming from that background may not be completely unbiased.

“My other concern is, when you have someone who's in charge of Title IX who is focusing on HR, that means that their primary concern is avoiding bad press for the school — it doesn't mean that their primary concern is keeping students safe,” Ferber said.

However, a statement from Kesha Keith, Director of OU's Media Relations, said a 2018 survey conducted by the Association of Title IX Administrators showed 80 percent of Title IX Coordinators from more than 500 higher education institutions had degrees other than law degrees.

"Human resource degrees are commonly sought by hiring managers for positions in Title IX offices with an additional emphasis on professional experience in the Title IX field," Keith said.

In an interview with The Daily Aug. 8, Mason said the office is always trying to improve. 

“We are constantly monitoring our policies and procedures for best practices and areas of improvement,” Mason said. “We monitor everything we do, we track things that we do and work with an outside consultant. We’ll continue to work with the administration to address any issues.” 

Keith's statement also said the expansion of the office shows its "strong commitment" to addressing sexual misconduct, harassment and discrimination.

"At a time when resources are limited in higher education, this investment reflects the high priority assigned to ensure OU has sufficient professional personnel to prevent and address misconduct and discrimination," Keith said.

Jess Eddy, a previous OU student who accused former OU President David Boren of sexual misconduct, said he believes the announcement of the new hires was “tone deaf and not responsive to the concerns of victims.” 

Victims have not asked for more employees but instead want policy reform, Eddy said.

One instance in which Eddy, who is also an Oklahoma City University law student, feels the office is making a mistake is the close relationship between it and the Office of General Counsel, two offices with inherently different goals.

One office is in place to protect students, faculty and staff from discrimination; the other to protect the university from risk of litigation.

Eddy said Mason told him he “works very closely” with OU’s General Counsel Anil Gollahalli.

This hinders the office’s ability to remain an unbiased third party, Eddy said. Title IX should conduct its investigation, and only when finished should it go to general counsel, human resources, student affairs or the provost’s office, Eddy said.

“Those entities are all being brought in from the get-go ... and that has resulted in this sense of betrayal of trust among the university community,” Eddy said. “Because of this legacy of controversy and distrust plaguing Title IX, a huge number of students, faculty and staff don't feel safe, and aren't safe, to report things to Title IX.”

In the Obama administration’s Title IX Resource Guide, working closely with legal counsel and administrators was encouraged. 

“Because Title IX prohibits discrimination in all aspects of a recipient’s education programs and activities, the Title IX coordinator should work closely with many different members of the school community, such as administrators, counselors, athletic directors, non-professional counselors or advocates, and legal counsel,” the April 2015 guide reads.

The Trump administration has rendered any Obama-era Title IX guidance void, but it is unclear what the Department of Education under Trump has to say about Title IX and legal counsel.

Levi Hilliard, a university employee who accused former vice president of university development Tripp Hall of sexual misconduct, said he believes the Title IX office is “built to fail” due to its structure as an outlet of the university it is meant to investigate. 

However, that is the precise requirement for universities from the Department of Education — to employ a Title IX coordinator to keep the institution in line with the Title IX law.

Hilliard said he would like to see something different, perhaps an office through the state or federal government, to eliminate the possible conflict of interest that exists now.

“I think there should be a complete divorce between Title IX and the University of Oklahoma,” Hilliard said. “I think that would be a good starting point in re-establishing confidence from the OU community that this is a body that they can go to ... to be able to hold individuals on the university campus accountable.”

Interim OU President Joe Harroz told The Daily June 27 that the Title IX office was under review. It’s not clear if the review is over or if the new hires and suggested training were the only results of that review.

When asked if the hires were the result of the review, Mason said Title IX is constantly evaluating its processes to improve.

“It's an ongoing evaluation,” Mason said. “I think a lot of what we saw this summer did result in these additional resources.”

Mason also said there has been “discussion” and “confusion” in the past year around Title IX’s processes, and he hopes to improve awareness about how the office works and what resources are available to students through the office.

But Hilliard said the hires are “a complete joke” and have failed to address the systemic issues in OU’s Title IX office.

“In terms of this new hiring, it's part of the sales pitch, to make it look like (Harroz) is really caring, and that he's actually trying to address these issues,” Hilliard said. “It's a bandage that doesn't actually cover a wound. It just puts a pretty little sticker on it.”

When looking at OU’s Title IX investigative process, Ferber said she found a concerning policy in the appeals process. According to the policy, if the sexual misconduct officer finds that the accused did not commit a sexual misconduct violation, the complainant can appeal that finding within five university business days of the dismissal.

However, if the Title IX officer or coordinator does not act on the appeal within five university business days, the case is considered closed.

“That's a huge red flag,” Ferber said. “Because that means they’re not giving people an appeals process, because they could just run out the clock. Someone could have really strong grounds for appeal, but if the Title IX coordinator just doesn't respond, then they lose that opportunity.”

Eddy also said he believes the office is breaking the law by discouraging complainants from going through with an investigation.

From his experience and the experiences of others he’s aware of, Eddy said Title IX employees will often tell a complainant early on that they can’t do anything about the situation, or that the dean of their college would be able to do more. 

“What's tragic about discouraging investigations is that these are kids most frequently, who don't know anything about the law and don't know anything about institutional governance and how Title IX is supposed to operate,” Eddy said. “And in it, they're bumping into a very complex legal system that is not necessarily — because of legal counsel’s influence on it — set up to help them.” 

Keith's statement said the office's "professionalism and processes" has been and will continue to be reviewed.

"Our examination has underscored the integrity of the OIE procedures and processes and the ongoing adherence to best practices and standards for personnel hiring, services, investigations and victim advocacy under guidelines and tests by federal agencies," Keith said.

With an increasing number of students questioning the Title IX process at OU and feeling unsafe, Eddy said OU must do more to address community concerns and policy reform. He said if the university does not, it is maintaining a policy of discrimination. 

For those seeking help in the aftermath of sexual assault, The Daily has compiled a database of availble resources at http://projects.oudaily.com/finding-help/

This story was updated at 6:46 p.m. Sept. 3 to include the statement from Keith.

Jana Allen is a journalism junior and the Daily's enterprise reporter. She was formerly a news reporter, and held several editor positions on the news desk before transitioning to enterprise.

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