Emerson Title IX Steering Committee adapting policy to new federal regulations

Vice+President+for+Equity+and+Social+Justice+Sylvia+Spears+said+the+college%27s+Title+IX+Steering+Committee+will+decide+if+complaints+will+be+investigated+beyond+the+narrow+requirement+set+by+U.S.+Secretary+of+Education+Betsy+Devos.

Photo: The Berkley Beacon Archives

Vice President for Equity and Social Justice Sylvia Spears said the college's Title IX Steering Committee will decide if complaints will be investigated beyond the narrow requirement set by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos.

By Diti Kohli and Stephanie Purifoy

A college committee is debating if Emerson will continue to investigate sexual misconduct incidents beyond what is covered by new federal Title IX regulations, according to a college official. 

The novel rules, championed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, narrow which cases of sexual harassment colleges must legally investigate. In addition, the regulations will require universities to garner more proof in misconduct cases, allow live Title IX hearings, and grant additional privileges to the accused party. It also exempts universities from investigating off-campus incidents. 

The proposed changes have attracted widespread criticism from Title IX experts nationwide, including Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy, who joined 18 states to sue the Department of Education early this month. 

Vice President for Equity and Social Justice Sylvia Spears said Emerson’s Temporary Steering Committee is discussing “five to six areas” of the Title IX policy that the new regulations affect.   

The committee may choose to continue exploring a broader scope of complaints about sexual misconduct past what the rules mandate, including any off-campus incidents involving students, Spears explained. 

“The college will have a decision to make,” she said in a phone interview. “Do we continue to think all of these behaviors are problematic and create a process that allows us to continue to provide a mechanism for resolution or recourse for all those possible?… Or do we go with the Department of Education’s narrow scope?”

The committee must amend Emerson Title IX policies to fit the regulations by Aug. 14.

As head of the Social Justice Center, which currently houses the Title IX office, Spears said Emerson should stick with its current comprehensive approach where the college investigates most instances of misconduct. Doing so ensures students’ willingness to report incidents of misconduct does not decrease, she said. 

“My biggest concern about the changes, overall, is that there are features to those changes that I believe will likely result in and lower reporting of incidents,” she said. “We don’t want that.”

Student Government Association Executive President Claire Rodenbush, who is part of the committee, said much of the group hopes to be as liberal with the federal regulations as possible. 

“We’re trying to implement as few of the regulations as they have to,” she said in a phone interview. “And we’re trying to keep it similar to Emerson’s current policy — which is no doubt better than what it would be if we completely adhered to the DeVvos rules.”

The new federal regulations also implement quasi-legal live hearings where accusers, the accused, investigators, and legal teams may question witnesses. 

Spears told The Beacon there “may be a way around that.” 

In order to avoid witness questioning, attendees of the hearing could instead discuss the investigative report. This way, one investigator will explore the complaint at length and draw conclusions that will then be analyzed in the courtroom-like setting, rather than questioning individual witnesses.

“An option is to still have an individual do all of the investigation, and then the investigative report is what is discussed,” she said. “One of the challenges is the ways in which these new regs try to bring elements from legal proceedings into college campus settings, and we already know that there are challenges in terms of how effective that system is.”

The Steering Committee is also working on paring down the language in the college’s Title IX policy, which some have called dense and inaccessible. 

Student advocate Leah Cedeño, General Counsel Christine Hughes, Vice President and Dean of Campus Life James Hoppe, the two chairs of the Title IX Working Group Amy Ansell and Jan Roberts-Breslin, Rodenbush, Spears — all members of the committee — will weigh in on the Title IX changes. The committee has met weekly since early June. 

An undisclosed number of community members also serve on several subcommittees that consult the Steering Committee, Spears said. These smaller groups have been meeting more regularly.

The committee is working to complete the changes by the mid-August deadline — largely because of the policy’s potential effect on the number of federal aid dollars Emerson receives. 

“We have to be ready to roll,” Spears said. “In this context, compliance means access to federal dollars for Emerson. That’s federal financial aid dollars that allow students to come to Emerson and so that’s a key motivation to move as efficiently as we can.”

The race to comply with Devos’ policies comes just as the college finished an internal review of its Title IX system. A working group reviewed the policies throughout the 2019–-2020 school year and released its findings recently in May. These recommendations will not be discussed in a public town hall until the fall. 

The Aug. 14 deadline to meet the federal rules will remain unless the movements to stall the federal regulations is successful.