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A Conversation with Julian Williams, Vassar’s Title IX Officer

Julian R. Williams, Esq., is the director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action at Vassar College. As the college’s Title IX officer, Williams is responsible for conducting investigations of alleged violations of Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity policies. Williams holds a BA in English from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a JD from Michigan State University College of Law. He has worked as a civil trial attorney in cases involving discrimination, harassment, and violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Before coming to Vassar in 2012, Williams served as the director of the Office of Equity and Diversity at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

Jullian R. Williams, Esq.

What is Title IX and what does it encompass?

Title IX is a very short statute that was passed in 1972 to address gender discrimination on college campuses. At the time, the statute was used to address issues of gender equity in admissions policies and in athletics—making sure that schools had a similar number of male and female sports teams and that those teams had equal access to facilities and resources. In many ways, Title IX was always designed to grow and expand. Today, the statute is also being used to address issues of sexual assault and dating violence. These matters are under the purview of the Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. Presently, colleges and universities are being asked to look at whether the environment on their campuses fosters gender inequality and sexual misconduct. If you have an environment where these issues are going unchecked, what barriers does this create on your campus? If you don’t have an environment that is investigating and responding to issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment, female students on your campus may not feel safe, and they may not feel like they belong. So at Vassar we want to meet not only our legal obligations under Title IX but, more importantly, our moral obligations to protect and care for our students and our community.

How do institutions go about meeting their obligations under Title IX?

Title IX compliance looks different on every campus. Every school is mandated to have a Title IX officer or coordinator, but not every school can afford to have that person focus exclusively on Title IX issues. Some of my peers at other institutions are faculty members; some work in a variety of other administrative capacities. Every school is also mandated to have an equitable process that balances the rights of both parties and that investigates matters as they come to the attention of the institution, but how that process is structured differs from school to school. We’ve been evaluated by external experts who do this work, such as Peter Lake and Scott Lewis of the NCHERM Group LLC, and it is clear that in terms of policies and procedures and support, Vassar is a model that other institutions are trying to emulate. That doesn’t mean that we have it all figured out, but it does mean that we approach these issues with a high degree of care, a high degree of attention to detail, and a high degree of respect for students on all sides of an issue.

What does this mean for students at Vassar?

It means that there are policies and procedures and support mechanisms in place. Even before a student says, “I want to make a formal report,” there is somewhere for that student to go to talk through what their options are. What we aim to do is reach out and support everyone involved in the process—students who have reported an alleged violation and responding students—understanding that a student who comes forward has been through a trauma, and we want to have the resources in place to support them. If a student on this campus comes forward and says, “I was the victim or the survivor of an incident of sexual misconduct or sexual assault,” we have counselors readily available. We have confidential resources who can walk the student through what the reporting process might look like. I have a lot of faith in the people we have working directly with students on these issues—the people in our Counseling Center, our Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention team, our Sexual Assault Response Team.

What is the process if a student decides to make a formal report?

Every formal allegation is investigated. We have three Title IX investigators on campus, one in Safety and Security and two in Residential Life. In July 2015 we will be adding a full-time Title IX investigator, which should allow for some additional flexibility in terms of investigative support, community outreach, and education. These are expertly trained fact gatherers who meet with the reporting student and the responding student and any witnesses. Their job is to gather as much information as possible in a way that doesn’t traumatize or re-victimize the parties involved. Then they draft an investigative report that will help the adjudicators in making a determination as to whether there is enough information to conclude that there has been a policy violation.

How do you know that our process is working?

In the two and a half years that I’ve been here, over 70 percent of the sexual misconduct cases that have gone on to a hearing have resulted in findings of responsibility, and within that 70 percent, there have been a handful of expulsions and suspensions. There have also been some cases where there has not been enough information to find a policy violation. And that is an indication that we have a robust system. If that number were 100 percent, I would say that we have a problem. If it were zero, I would say that we have a problem. But what those numbers say to me is that we have a process that encourages students to report and that these matters are being handled delicately, swiftly, and fairly.

What do you find the most challenging about working on these issues?

What I find most challenging is that so much of how we think about Title IX and so much of how students experience it is results-based. So whether you are the reporting party or the responding party, how you experience this process will be determined by what the end result is. The challenge for me is to try to get across to the community and to the students involved in these issues that we want to be there to support students on either side. Regardless of the results of the hearing, we still hear you, we still care about you. Just because a panel may not have had enough information to determine that there has been a probable policy violation doesn’t mean that we don’t believe you, doesn’t mean that we think you are lying. We must operate within our standard of proof and our policy definitions, but we care about all the students who go through this process.

Are there things we should be doing differently?

I think we can always learn more, even those of us who are working in this field professionally, and we can always do better. There is a national conversation on these issues, and Vassar is a part of that conversation and trying to lead on these issues. We continually strive to improve, but we have a process where people care, we have one that works, we have one that takes these matters very seriously and that really wants to do the right thing for every student involved.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, April 1, 2015