The University of Pennsylvania released a new draft policy centralizing sexual misconduct reporting in a single office, which would oversee investigations and resolutions of complaints against members of the Penn community. The new position of Associate Vice President for Equity and Title IX Officer would lead the office.
In the past, graduate student misconduct claims were handled by deans of the accuser’s school, which slowed responses to claims, said Graduate and Professional Student Assembly Sexual Harassment Committee Deputy Chair Blanca Castro, a second-year master's student in the School of Social Policy & Practice. Many students have also said they are uncomfortable issuing complaints of sexual misconduct with their respective deans, who often knew or worked with the accused parties.
Castro said the proposed policy allows the Associate Vice President for Equity and Title IX Officer to handle specific reports “instead of getting lost in a sea of other issues that may be happening within the school.”
The proposed policy also clarifies campus policy surrounding consensual sexual or dating relations between members of the Penn community in unequal positions of authority. Relationships between undergraduates and faculty or staff are prohibited, and graduate students are prohibited from engaging in relationships with faculty that have any supervisory role over them. The proposed policy strongly discourages relationships between graduate students and non-supervisory faculty or staff.
The proposal from the University was released on Jan. 22, and all members of the Penn community are able to comment on the policy until Feb. 22. The school's policy was officially released just over a week before the period for public comment closes on United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' proposed Title IX overhaul.
DeVos' regulations, released in November 2018, would add protections for students accused of misconduct. The new regulations propose a more narrow definition of sexual harassment, live cross-examination between the accuser and accused, and higher standards of evidence. If the Department of Education implements these guidelines, Penn’s Title IX coordinator will be legally bound to enforce them.
Penn acknowledged its own proposal might not be in effect for long, depending on the modifications made to DeVos' regulations following this comment period.
"The U.S. Department of Education issued proposed regulations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in November 2018. When final regulations are issued, they will be reviewed and any necessary revisions will be made," the University's own report read. "In the meantime, the advice that we overwhelmingly and enthusiastically received was that centralizing the intake and investigation of complaints of sexual misconduct should be accomplished as soon as a search can be completed."
The proposed centralized office comes nearly a year after students strongly criticized Penn’s sexual assault reporting procedures during a University Council Open Forum. In September 2018, Joann Mitchell, Penn's chief diversity officer and vice president for institutional affairs, and Wendy White, senior vice president and general counsel for the University, presented a proposal for a centralized office to the Faculty Senate Executive Committee. White, however, said a draft of the policies would not be published until later that fall.
Mitchell said Penn plans to move forward with finalizing the proposed policy later this semester, even if the new policy, once it's completed, is not in effect for long.
Mitchell said she did not foresee the federal policies being finalized until next year, at which point Penn would have to readjust its sexual misconduct policy to be in compliance with the official federal policy.
Penn’s sexual misconduct policy “will be in effect until we change it,” Mitchell said.
In the meantime, The Association of American Universities, which includes Penn among 59 other research universities, has made comments in response to the proposed Title IX changes. However, the University has no comments or complaints of its own, Mitchell added.
Penn Association for Gender Equity Chair and College junior Tanya Jain said the federal policy changes “will obviously decrease the likelihood of reporting and make it even more difficult for women to report."
A working group of administrators wrote the policy in consultation with student and faculty leaders. White wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the new procedures address the handling of misconduct complaints but “do not address the many programs and other resources across campus that serve to educate the community about sexual misconduct, and strive to prevent it.”
Mitchell and White presented the proposed policy to the Faculty Senate Executive Committee on Jan. 23. Jennifer Pinto-Martin, Nursing professor and Faculty Senate chair, likened the consolidation of sexual misconduct handling under the Associate Vice President for Equity and Title IX Officer to the consolidation of wellness activities under the Chief Wellness Officer.
While it is unknown what the finalized policy will look, Pinto-Martin said, “I think it’s an enormous step in a very important direction for Penn to recognize that this issue is one that’s really critical to everybody on campus — to the whole campus community — and we need to provide the best resources possible and the most accessible resources possible.”