Sexual misconduct policies and disciplinary procedures at Northwestern University have become an important part of campus conversation as the University updates its policies and some activists push for greater reforms. Policies and incidents related to sexual misconduct have commanded attention not only at Northwestern, but also on a national level in government recommendations for colleges across the country facing similar issues with campus policies and practices.
What brings this issue to the forefront now?
Sexual misconduct policies and disciplinary procedures became a big topic at Northwestern in early March after an online petition, sit-in and protest ensued over the handling of the alleged sexual assault of a Medill junior by Professor Peter Ludlow. From there, students demonstrated broader concerns with the handling of Title IX policies on campus.
A University investigation found Ludlow had engaged in inappropriate conduct with the student, according to the University response to the suit in district court. The University listed its corrective actions against Ludlow in the response.
After the protests, the University announced Ludlow would not teach during spring quarter.
Some students were not satisfied with the prospect of Ludlow teaching at all in the future.
“If Professor Ludlow continues teaching, I will continue to protest that in some way,” said Weinberg junior Jasmine Stephens, a student activist involved in the Title IX-related protests. “I’m sure there will be others.”
A petition on Change.org adressed the Board of Trustees at Northwestern, asking them to consider sexual violence policies and practices, one way this case has led to a discussion of Title IX on campus. A panel of administrators answered related questions at a forum in early April.
“At Northwestern, two things are happening in parallel,” Stephens said. “There’s what happened with Ludlow, and the wide category of sexual assault on Northwestern's campus.”
Student activists involved in the protests against Ludlow's continued teaching organized a booth at Wildcat Days to share information with new students about Title IX and the reforms they hope to see, according to Stephens and Weinberg junior Laura Whittenburg.
In addition to protests surrounding the lawsuit, sexual misconduct became more widely discussed in January when the university released an expanded policy on “Consensual Romantic or Sexual Relationships Between Faculty, Staff and Students” and "Sexual Misconduct, Stalking, and Dating and Domestic Violence." Notably, the standards for consensual relationships between students, faculty and staff were unified.
What is Northwestern doing to address these concerns?
The Campus Coalition on Sexual Violence (CCSV) makes recommendations to the Vice President of Student Affairs at Northwestern, meeting each month with students, staff and community agencies. The coalition’s work currently focuses on three initiatives.
First, the coalition is hoping to recommend the university administer a campus climate survey. In April 2014, the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault listed the climate survey as its first recommendation, noting that, “the first step in solving a problem is to name it and know the extent of it.” Although the task force offers a toolkit and guidelines on administering the survey, there are more difficulties beyond the actual questioning process.
Laura Stuart, Northwestern’s Coordinator of Sexual Health Education and Violence Prevention, said it will be important for the University to be willing to accept and address information which may be critical and for students to be willing to participate in the survey and to understand the importance of the data for students, not just the administration.
If students responses reflect negatively on the university, Stuart said, then “the administration, all the way up to President Schapiro potentially, has to be ready to hear that. If we do a campus climate survey, the only way that survey would be useful is if we then release the results and then start having community discussion and forum and start asking what could we do to better.”
Stuart says she is optimistic about the administration’s willingness to create change based on the steps she has seen taken each year during her time at Northwestern.
One such change took place in January whe Northwestern updated its policies on sexual misconduct and consensual romantic or sexual relationships between faculty, staff and students. The student conduct process for policy violations will soon be updated. Tara Sullivan, the deputy Title IX coordinator who deals with sexual misconduct complaints against students, is leading the process of revising the entire student conduct process at Northwestern.
During the summer, the coalition will also begin to analyze the recently released data from the National College Health Assessment collected by the American College Health Association during winter quarter, according to Stuart. The survey includes information about the number of students who say that they have experienced sexual assault, stalking or relationship violence.
Northwestern can compare the data to the information last collected from the 2011 survey to the aggregate survey numbers from college campuses around the country. Stuart said she hopes a report will be released in the fall with statistics from the survey.
What is the current disciplinary process?
The Sexual Assault Hearing and Appeals System (SAHAS) is the system used for claims of student-on-student sexual assault. After a complaint is filed, the neutral executive secretary meets with both parties and reviews rights and responsibilities. The resolution process involves a hearing before a SAHAS Hearing Panel, which is composed of members of the University committee. The panel determines whether sexual assault policy was violated and if so, the appropriate sanction or outcome. Either student can request an appeal or rehearing process.
A different process exists for sexual misconduct complaints against staff, faculty, or third parties. The Sexual Harassment Prevention Office handles the process using an investigative model.
According to the complaint resolution guidelines, the investigator determines whether a respondent has violated the Policy on Sexual Harassment. The investigator provides his or her conclusions and any recommendations to the relevant university office. The office for faculty cases is the faculty member's Chair or Dean.
As the guidelines explain, “The appropriate office will review the recommendation and then, in consultation with the Director of the University Sexual Harassment Prevention Office and, where appropriate, the Office of Human Resources, will make a decision concerning the resolution of the complaint and any corrective actions that will be imposed. The complainant and the respondent will be notified in writing of the outcome of the investigation upon its completion.”
According to a Title IX Coordinating Committee statement, “Under the faculty handbook, a faculty member may file an appeal of any sanctions. A faculty Committee on Cause reviews the report and the discipline, and makes a recommendation on the appropriateness of the sanctions imposed by the Dean. In doing so, the Committee on Cause may propose greater or lesser sanctions.”
Some students have voiced their desire for a change in this process.
Student activist Laura Whittenburg said she wished there were more transparency in the decision making end of the process involving the alleged case against Ludlow. Further, Whittenburg said she would like to see an independent review of sexual assault cases, expressing concern with what she sees as a possibility for a conflict of interest when the University handles cases without independent review.
The Title IX Coordinating Committee statement responded to the online petition’s request for an independent review, saying, “The petition asks for an office independent of Northwestern to oversee University handling of sexual violence matters and to ensure that survivors receive support and advocacy. We do not believe this is necessary. The University already has a Title IX Coordinator and four Deputy Title IX Coordinators who oversee the University’s handling of sexual misconduct matters. Northwestern also has the Center for Awareness, Response, and Education (CARE).”
While undergraduate students and administrators have been at the forefront of the campus-wide debate on sexual assult and Title IX, they are not the only members of the university community questioning current and past practices and policies.
Philosophy graduate student and activist Chelsea Egbert explained the status of graduate students is complicated because they are both students and class instructors as teaching assistants.
Part of the issue, according to Egbert, is the University's ability to track data on sexual assault. “We need to reliably be able to capture the normal cases in a rape of sexual assault,” Egbert said. “Our system is not capturing that.”
What is ASG doing?
ASG hopes to hold quarterly meeting with student groups related to the prevention, advocacy and response to sexual assault and sexual violence in order to assist them in advancing their goals on campus and encourage collaboration.
“We want to be a resource and a facilitator for those groups messages and help them be as effective as possible to reach as many people on campus as possible,” said ASG’s Vice President of Student Life Chris Harlow.
To adress a perceived information gap in student's knowledge and perceptions of sexual misoncduct policies and resources for survivors on campus, ASG is working to post a FAQ page with information about sexual harassment, assault and violence policies at Northwestern as well as a guide of options for victims, which Harlow said they hope will be up and running by the end of the year.
At ASG's trip to Washington D.C. this year, Harlow said on of ASG's main points while lobbying Congress was increased transparency from the Department of Education and Office of Civil Rights on Title IX compliance by universities and stricter laws and sanctions.
ASG's D.C. visit, Sex Week, Take Back the Night, the Title IX protests and a shift in the campus conversation were all catalysts that Harlow said "helped ASG recognize that this is a priority for students, as well as many students who reached out to us. We are very appreciative that they did."