Fenves must continue sexual assault awareness and prevention efforts

Jori Epstein

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of columns exploring the Title IX amendment at UT.

Since its enactment in 1972, the Title IX amendment has been a hot topic on college campuses. Its goal has not changed: to prohibit exclusion, discrimination and unequal treatment on the basis of sex for “any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” But its scope has increased significantly since its enactment.

From fighting overt discrimination against women to promoting gender equity in athletics, Title IX has evolved over four decades. Now, Title IX policies take a new focus: sexual assault awareness, prevention and response.

“Our community and society are [becoming] more informed,” said Krista Anderson, director of Student Emergency Services and Title IX deputy coordinator. “People are more comfortable coming forward because the universities take it seriously.”

Campus statistics demand the University of Texas at Austin take notice. Between the 2012–13 to 2013–14 academic years, Title IX complaints increased 400 percent — from 30 to 120. Student Emergency Services worked 150 Title IX cases this academic year, but many cases remain unreported.

Recent Plan II graduate Blair Robbins said she experienced discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation while in class. She did not report her discomfort because she was unaware that it constituted a Title IX case. Robbins explained her confusion over her options.

“Right now it’s either yes, it’s serious and someone should be fired or sued, or it’s a non-issue,” Robbins said. “There needs to be more middle ground. If you’re only looking at [sexism] that can be proven in court, then you’re ignoring all the conditions that led to this moment.”

University President Gregory Fenves, who began his term Wednesday, understands the need to change campus culture before seeing results.

Fenves discussed plans to form task forces during his introductory press conference, letter to the University and an op-ed last week. He described the focus “on wellness, not just sickness,” for the Dell Medical School, which is set to break ground next year. He also explained the Dell commitment to partnering with the community by “redesigning health care to better align with society’s interests in quality and value.”

Each of these tenets — collaboration, promoting wellness and aligning care with society’s interests — should shape Fenves’ approach to sexual assault awareness and prevention.

Forming task forces is essential to uniting UT’s fractured efforts at combating Title IX issues. Linda Millstone, UT’s interim institutional Title IX coordinator, said “the University operates in silos and often doesn’t communicate across silos,” but Title IX requires coordination and mutual understanding. Campus organizations such as Voices Against Violence and Not On My Campus are the right start. As Fenves works more with these initiatives, their campus impact will grow.

Fenves should also apply his goal of promoting wellness to a conversation about Title IX on campus. UT has many expansive and effective health services. But they must redefine wellness, as Robbins said, to go beyond eliminating the sexism that requires the large burden of proof demanded by courts. University administrators must address the broader category of “sexual misconduct” to improve prevention tactics and campus understanding.  

Finally, aligning initiatives with societal needs is crucial. In partnership with 27 universities around the country, UT distributed a campus climate survey this spring that aimed to improve both local and national sexual misconduct policy. The survey’s generalities, however, precluded it from helping our campus effectively, Millstone said. Instead, UT intends to distribute its own survey, tailored more closely to campus needs and trends.

“We want to focus on metrics,” Millstone said. “How can we make sure what we’re doing is effective?”  

Data and subsequent actions are unlikely to seriously improve UT’s problems for months, if not years. Distributing surveys, then creating initiatives in response, requires extensive time, effort and resources. But, the potential to minimize harm and change our culture makes it all necessary. As such, Fenves must be willing to embrace a long-term approach to these issues and start the process now.

As students feel more comfortable reporting sexual misconduct, campus Title IX incidents will only increase at the staggering rates of recent years unless we all take responsibility for our actions and the actions of those around us. Fenves must prioritize the fight for Title IX rights amid a demanding presidency. And every member of the 40 Acres needs to join him.