The mid-term congressional election is less than two months away and some observers wonder whether the event will be all about nothing.
Aug. 30--Universities nationwide, including the University of Colorado, are under pressure from the White House, students, advocacy groups and government offices to respond more aggressively to acts of sexual misconduct on campus.
Some have criticized CU as it moves to fire a tenured philosophy professor accused of retaliating against a sexual assault victim, saying the administration is overreacting in light of recent scrutiny around Title IX, the federal gender equity law that prohibits sexual harassment and sexual assault.
CU officials, however, say they've always acted appropriately when investigating sexual misconduct cases, and that the public's renewed interest in Title IX has had no fundamental effect on the university's policies and procedures.
In May, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of 55 schools with open Title IX investigations, a roster that included CU's Boulder campus.
In interviews with the Daily Camera, several CU faculty members -- who did not want to be named because they feared retaliation from the university -- said they believe the campus is taking action against philosophy professor David Barnett because administrators don't want to appear soft on sexual harassment or assault.
That's a position shared by Barnett's attorney.
"My perception is that the university administration is trying to either improve their reputation or insulate themselves from further damage to their reputation by demonstrating that they're taking the harshest possible action," attorney Brian Moore said.
Barnett has been accused of retaliation, which is prohibited under Title IX and under CU's sexual harassment policy, an allegation he strongly denies.
Katherine Erwin, director of the Office of Discrimination and Harassment, which investigates incidents involving university employees, acknowledged the "backlash" her office has faced in recent months.
She said she believes that CU has not been influenced by recent attention to Title IX, except to be compliant with any new recommendations.
CU was an early leader in enforcing all laws and policies around sexual misconduct, Erwin said, and in educating students, faculty and staff.
"Because I think the fundamentals have been there for a very long time, I don't think we're changing in fundamental ways," she said. "I think what is evolving is the state on college and university campuses around Title IX and all the new (regulations), all the new reports that are coming out that we need to be following. And we're taking all of those very seriously and making sure that we're staying up to date and current with all of that."
"But I don't think it's changed fundamentally who we are."
'As the pendulum begins to come back'
Much of the renewed interest around Title IX can be attributed to more guidance from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and communication from the White House about campus sexual assaults, said Scott Lewis, a founder of the Association of Title IX administrators.
Lewis, who's also a partner with the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, has helped train thousands of college and university investigators.
Schools have been criticized in recent years for not doing enough to make victims of sexual misconduct feel safe on campus and for questioning victims' character, sexual behavior and drinking habits, among other things, Lewis said.
It's possible that some schools are overcorrecting now for past mistakes, he said.
"For a long time, the pendulum was swung very heavily to the due process rights of the accused, at the expense of the victim at times," Lewis said. "So as the pendulum begins to come back to the middle, and we have good impartial decisions made by investigators, there are some schools that have swung that pendulum a little far."
Some campuses -- including Swarthmore College, Delaware State University, Xavier University and others -- have faced lawsuits from men who say they've been punished wrongfully because their schools were eager to appear tough on sexual assault and harassment.
In an April 2014 newsletter, Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, described his recent involvement in five cases where he believed universities mistakenly found men guilty of sexual misconduct when alcohol was involved.
"Finding each of the accused in violation of sexual misconduct is sex discrimination," he wrote. "We are making Title IX plaintiffs out of them."
'They are facing bad publicity'
Earlier this month, CU paid a female graduate student $825,000 to settle accusations that Barnett retaliated against her after she reported being sexually assaulted by a fellow graduate student.
The Daily Camera is not naming the male graduate student because he was not arrested in connection with the case. The Camera does not name victims of sexual assault.
Barnett is accused of retaliating against the woman while conducting his own investigation into the sexual assault. The woman says he spoke to others in the philosophy department about her sexual history, an allegation Barnett denies.
Barnett claims that his investigation focused on the Office of Discrimination and Harassment. His lawyer said Barnett believes the office "intentionally and systematically" manipulated evidence to find the accused student guilty.
Moore said CU's administration is using Barnett as a pawn in some larger game that may be motivated by politics, fear of another federal Title IX investigation or a lawsuit from a victim.
"Certainly, they are facing bad publicity at the very least in connection with Title IX issues, and certainly the history of the philosophy department itself suggests they may have been lazy in certain respects in the past and they're trying to make up for it by holding up a scalp and saying, 'Look how aggressively we respond,'" Moore said.
In January, the university made public an independent report that summarized sexual harassment, bullying and other misconduct within the philosophy department. Many faculty members said that instead of ridding the department of bad actors, CU punished everyone by releasing the independent report, which does not name specific offenders.
While he couldn't comment on Barnett's case, CU spokesman Ryan Huff said the university is taking "appropriate and necessary" actions to combat gender discrimination across the Boulder campus.
"Any personnel actions we take are based on the facts of that case and are in no way related to criticism of any past action or inaction on other cases," Huff said.
'We want to be a leader among our peers'
In contrast to claims CU is cracking down on sexual misconduct, some feel the university could be doing more.
The Boulder campus is the subject of a federal Title IX investigation after undergraduate Sarah Gilchriese complained to the U.S. Department of Education that CU did not take appropriate action after she was sexually assaulted.
Gilchriese, who has agreed to be identified publicly, said it took four weeks for her assailant to be removed from campus, and during that time he went against an order to have no contact with her several times.
In the end, she sought help in the form of a permanent protection order.
The university paid Gilchriese more than $30,000 in a settlement earlier this year.
"The focus in investigations, when assailants are found guilty, should be on making sure the survivor is safe," Gilchriese said. "The university did not do this for me, and I wish they had focused on both my emotional and physical safety more. They did not do enough."
Around the country, students, alumni and advocacy groups have called on colleges and universities to do more around sexual misconduct.
Huff said CU is doing that, and pointed to Chancellor Phil DiStefano's continued commitment to gender equity on the campus.
The university recently hired Valerie Simons, a former federal civil rights attorney, as a new Title IX coordinator and commissioned an outside review of campus Title IX processes, which found CU to be fully compliant.
The campus is contemplating a reorganization of the two offices that investigate allegations of sexual misconduct, and has scheduled several campus-wide discussions on social climate issues.
"While there is no perfect solution to eliminate gender discrimination and sexual harassment on college campuses, we want to be a leader among our peers in addressing the issue," Huff said.
Erwin, the Office of Discrimination and Harassment director, said her office has been working to have more face-to-face conversations with university employees through training and informal meetings.
She said her office is always trying to educate more people on campus about university policies, how to intervene if they see discrimination or harassment and what resources are available to them.
Erwin said she feels trust in her office is very high, despite criticisms in recent months about situations in philosophy and involving now-retired sociology professor Patti Adler, who claimed she was asked to resign over a lecture on prostitution.
"I know that there's a backlash of people out there suggesting that it's different, but I also know that I get reassured from lots of people across campus all the time," Erwin said of her office's work amid heightened Title IX awareness.
"They thank us, they believe in what we do, they support us."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Sarah Kuta at 303-473-1106, [email protected] or twitter.com/sarahkuta.
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