As a lawyer by training and a student affairs professional by passion, I find myself frequently drawing parallels between the two fields. One of the things that I was particularly quick to notice is that student affairs, like law, places tremendous value on advocacy. Campuses are packed with enthusiastic and qualified professionals who are eager to speak up and fight for the administrative, educational, and emotional needs of their students. Among the most capable of those advocates are many of our freshly-minted Title IX personnel. In fact, many of them may have been hired for this exact reason. But notwithstanding their exceptional qualifications and ability to advocate for the best interests of the university community, Title IX administrators and other such personnel understand that their role is that of the impartial fact-finder. Unfortunately, anecdotes by student survivors sometimes seem to suggest that this role is misunderstood. The misguided perceptions of these individuals as advocates can have devastating results for all sides.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Complainant advocacy is essential. Most people can agree on this. But we aren’t talking about the kind of advocacy that comes in the form of a scathing exposé, or dragging mattresses across college campuses. We’re talking about advocacy and guidance available to the complainant on behalf of the institution. Many of the incidents warranting a Title IX investigation can be emotionally traumatic by their very nature. This trauma is compounded by the self-doubt, excitement, confusion, social pressures, and other varieties of emotional turbulence that come with being an eighteen to twenty-something year-old student on a traditional college campus. For these reasons and countless others, it can be difficult for a survivor to muster up the courage to bring a formal complaint. Advocacy for these students requires not only administrative guidance to navigate the procedural maze of bringing a complaint, but the emotional support needed to help them speak out. They need a professional in their corner. They need an advocate.
This is hardly groundbreaking insight. Most institutions have figured this out. They have a staff member (or several) on-hand to provide emotional support and resources, as well as to guide the student through the administrative process of bringing his/her complaint. But the important question isn’t whether universities have such an advocate available, but rather, who takes up that advocacy role. While many institutions have created campus advocacy programs or partnered with third-party advocacy groups, a select minority still permit or expect the Title IX personnel to be perceived as the go-to student advocates. Where these same staff members are also charged with conducting the investigation, making initial determinations, facilitating the hearing, and/or deciding the outcome, the relationship can become problematic.
Even where independent advocacy programs exist on campus, and even where Title IX personnel don’t necessarily act as advocates, actual impartiality isn’t always sufficient to negate the appearance of impropriety. A complainant’s mere perception of Title IX personnel as advocates can be hazardous for obvious reasons. Where the complainant believes that this relationship exists, the respondent student may see the administrator as a complainant advocate as well. This misunderstanding can leave questions of bias lingering with the respondent, and may hinder the administrator’s ability to effectively provide the same support and guidance that may be needed by the the accused. It can also erode the trust and rapport that is necessary to conduct an effective investigation.
Though it may not be facially obvious, this misconception can be equally as harmful to the complainant. The idea of the administrator serving as an advocate may solidify the expectation of a particular outcome in the mind of the complainant. When that expectation is shattered by a finding of “not responsible,” survivors are quick to believe that their “advocate” has turned, and that the institution is apathetic. Alternatively, such an abrupt change in the student’s perception of the relationship could even leave complainants questioning whether they were ever victimized at all. All student conduct administrators understand the complex array of circumstances that can lead to a finding of “not responsible,” and know that such a finding does not necessarily mean that the incident didn’t happen as alleged. It simply means that the facts as known or presented couldn’t meet the burden of proof.
Complainants are not as quick to grasp this concept, and often need clarification and guidance on this point. But that explanation becomes discredited to a tremendous degree when it comes from a person who had the power to change the outcome of the hearing. Complainants need to understand that the finding doesn’t make their pain any less real; that true survivors have other courses of action, and that people are still there to advocate and fight for them. Where their only perceived advocate is a Title IX administrator, it’s easy to feel that the advocacy ends when the institution’s proceedings conclude.
While it may seem logical for students to attach this advocacy image to the role, the negative consequences of doing so can be both devastating and long-lasting. They are also avoidable. As mentioned above, campuses are loaded with outstanding administrators who are both eager and qualified to take up an advocacy role. Allowing them to take up that task, and managing students’ understanding of how they differ from the role of Title IX personnel, may result in less blowback following investigations, and more of the strong, uninhibited, and ongoing advocacy that we all want so desperately for our students.