Emerson officially relocates Office of Access, Equity, and Title IX

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Photo: The Berkley Beacon Archives

Emerson’s Title IX office.

By Charlie McKenna

Emerson officially moved its Office of Access, Equity, and Title IX out of the Social Justice Center, creating a stand-alone office that will report to the Dean of Campus Life on Wednesday, a move that received widespread criticism upon its suggestion in April 2020. 

Interim President Bill Gilligan announced the “immediate change” in a Wednesday evening email, writing that the change will allow for the office to continue its current functions and broaden its scope to cover other forms of discrimination. Under the new structure, Vice President and Dean for Campus Life Jim Hoppe would oversee the office, which was previously housed in the Social Justice Center. 

The change, according to Gilligan, will allow for the growth of the Social Justice Center as the college searches for a vice president for equity & social justice to fill the position left vacant by Sylvia Spears’ departure in August. Emerson is also searching for an associate vice president/Title IX coordinator, and a deputy Title IX coordinator/investigator. 

These changes to organizational structure will enable the College to better center the priorities of the office, our processes, and support of our community as these important roles are filled,” Gilligan wrote. 

The change was first proposed in April 2020, when a working group assembled by former President M. Lee Pelton in Sept. 2019 intended to examine the college’s Title IX and sexual misconduct investigative policy, released a public draft of its recommendations. The group was comprised of students, faculty, and staff, and co-chaired by Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jan Roberts-Breslin. 

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The group suggested in their initial report that some students might believe the center’s advocacy focus would lead the office to lose its neutrality. 

Those recommendations drew widespread criticism from both student activists and administrators. Former vice president for equity and social justice Sylvia Spears said the suggestion by the working group that students took issue with the location of the office was “somewhat surprising.”

Spears wrote in a public comment on the initial draft that the center, which she oversaw, was the only place where the office could be located. In her comments, Spears said that Hoppe’s role as the appellate officer in Title IX cases would create an inherent conflict of interest if he were to oversee the office. 

“A Title IX Coordinator housed in Campus Life may unintentionally send the message to the campus community that Title IX compliance [only] applies to students and that power-based interpersonal violence is a phenomenon that only affects students,” she said. “This proposed relocation may render the Title IX process invisible as a path for redress for faculty, staff, and affiliated third parties.”

The change comes after years of turmoil regarding the college’s Title IX policies, which included two students filing suit against the college for mishandling their reported assaults. Judges issued summary judgments in both cases, allowing them to be settled out of court without a trial.