Is an Assembly Enough of a Forum for Title IX Issues?
Title IX is a statute of the Education Amendments of 1972 that protects against, among many things, sex-related discrimination. Any organization that receives money from the U.S. Department of Education has obligations to prevent discrimination in these matters, especially sexual harassment. Universities fall under this category, and while some religious campuses apply for exemption to Title IX in cases where application of its statutes would go against their religious beliefs, Andrews University chooses to implement Title IX in the interests of protecting all of its students’ rights.
To encourage non-discriminatory practices and to reduce sex-related assault and harassment, Andrews holds various Title IX assemblies, one of which is mandatory for the student body. The first of this year’s assemblies was in the Howard Performing Arts Center on August 30, where Deborah Weithers, Dean for Student Life, and Steve Yeagley, Assistant Vice President for Campus & Student Life, spoke to the students about these issues.
However, a rising concern from many students who attended the assembly was that the assembly did not comprehensively cover the complicated subjects of sexual misconduct and abuse.
Esther Battle (senior, sociology) said, “I think my overall impression of the Title IX assembly was that it just didn’t seem as though a lot of effort was put into it at all, and that scares me because this is serious, and I expect my university to take it seriously and act accordingly.”
Specifically, Battle noted that the assembly was identical to the Title IX assembly held the previous year, which suggests on the surface that the university considers its current efforts to protect against discrimination satisfactory, and not needing revision or expansion. This poses a problem when students find the program insufficient to begin with, as many did. The chief complaint was that not enough effort was put into debunking myths in enough detail that students would understand why some ideas regarding sexual conduct are misconceptions.
“I think if the university really cares about this and recognizes the seriousness of this, they need to invest serious time and energy into planning and creating a platform where this can be broken down in an educational and thorough manner,” Battle said.
One facet of the problem may be that the assembly is meant to give an overview of the content found in the Student Handbook under its Sexual Misconduct (Sexual Assault), Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, and Stalking Policy, which can be found on the Andrews University website. The 50-minute assembly covered in brief most of the topics found there. These topics, however, can be confusing if not explained carefully to students unfamiliar with them.
“Rape, consent, sexual assault—these are all really heavy and complicated issues, and many people entering college haven’t been very well educated on them,” Battle explained, “so to have an assembly that consists solely of telling people what’s what without breaking it down further or allowing for discussion or questions—it feels lazy and ineffective.”
As Battle points out, many students new to university have not participated in these discussions before, especially students from Seventh-day Adventist backgrounds. Students who were unsatisfied with the assembly wanted to see more opportunity for students to voice their confusion and receive well-articulated reasons for the university’s policy regarding misconduct.
Troubling to many in attendance were the responses to several questions that were asked by Dean Weithers and Assistant Vice President Yeagley. The students were invited to answer questions via electronic poll, where the results would then be displayed on a screen above the stage. One question asked whether a victim of rape was partly responsible if they had been drinking earlier. The results showed that some students believed that yes, the victim was at least somewhat culpable for putting themselves in a position where they could be raped. Another question asked if rape can happen if both parties are drunk. According to the results, some believed rape could not happen if this were the case. After each question, the correct answers were given, then the program moved on to the next question, instead of carefully unpacking these situations, informing the students why the correct answer was correct, and the false one false. Without this elaboration, students who hold firm opinions or have never had concepts and definitions of consent and rape explained to them before are not completely informed.
Battle emphasized, “They made statements in the assembly that many people were raised to blatantly disagree with. Those people’s opinions aren’t going to change just because Student Life tells them to.”
Instead of being told what they should understand about rape and consent, students need to be convinced of the facts.
To the assembly’s credit, the issue of sexual assault and harassment was not treated like it didn’t exist on campus; Dean Weithers stated that students seated in the auditorium would likely find themselves in situations where they or people they were with would be in danger of assault. But if Andrews has acknowledged that its students are at risk, then why the lack of effort to revise the Title IX assembly from last year, as mentioned by Battle? If matters are to change, then the university must find a way to listen and respond to student concerns, engaging them in a dialogue that will leave the student body better informed about how to lead safe lives at Andrews, thanks to Title IX and effective communication.
I applaud Andrews University for being open to having this conversation, since many religious universities choose to exempt themselves from parts of Title IX instead. I also want to thank Student Life for what they have done to educate the student body. It is my hope that we can do even better in the future by working together to create more satisfying forums for education and discussion.
Dean Weithers had the following to say about the Title IX assembly’s presentation:
“The presentation we did this year is very similar in content from last year; however, all of the graphics were updated. What most students who saw the presentation last year would notice was the usage of the same videos both years. Those are the best videos that we have found that explain the main concepts in a humorous and interesting way. Most of the videos available are instructional, but rather bland. We wish we had the resources to develop our own video, but that is cost prohibitive at this time.
While we had a Title IX presentation last year, this is the first year we are requiring the Title IX assembly for all students. We want to make sure that students have the information about sexual misconduct, including definitions and how sexual misconduct is determined: the consistency of information provided to all students is important. In fact, Title IX and VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) require us to provide training for our students each year. We are early in the process of having a required Title IX presentation and are determining the best way for all students to obtain this information. Next year’s presentation format is still under discussion and I welcome feedback from students on how to make it more effective.
One of the key challenges to this presentation is the 45-50 minute time constraint to cover such a sensitive topic. We did feel as if we had a very full presentation and not enough time to thoroughly cover the topics. I would have loved to have more time to discuss the answers to the poll questions and provide more time for a Q&A session. In the future, we will plan for a follow up the Title IX 50-minute presentation with a Q&A session at some other time where answers could be discussed at length.”