George Mason University will double the number of Title IX staff on its Fairfax campus by hiring two new coordinators before the 2019 fall semester, university administrators revealed on Tuesday at a student-organized town hall on sexual assault prevention.
The university’s Title IX Office, which is housed in the Office of Compliance, Diversity, and Ethics, currently has only two dedicated staff positions, a coordinator and an investigator, along with three deputy Title IX coordinators who also work in other capacities.
The deputy Title IX coordinators include Senior Associate Athletic Director Nena Rogers and University Policy Manager and Freedom of Information Act Compliance Officer Elizabeth Woodley. Kent Zimmerman, an assistant professor of business law, serves as the deputy Title IX coordinator on Mason’s Korea campus.
GMU Title IX Coordinator Jennifer Hammat announced on Mar. 15 that she is stepping down from the position after three years to become dean of students at the University of Southern Indiana.
Woodley was named interim Title IX coordinator while the university conducts a national search for her replacement.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal funding. Though originally used to ensure equal access to programs such as athletics, the law has been used to address sexual harassment since those experiences can affect individuals’ ability to perform and stay in school.
George Mason also has a university policy that prohibits sexual and gender-based harassment and other forms of interpersonal violence, including sexual assault.
The planned expansion of Mason’s Title IX office comes in the wake of an outcry from students who opposed the university’s hiring of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a visiting professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School.
After news of Kavanaugh’s hiring was first reported on Mar. 22 by the GMU student newspaper Fourth Estate, a coalition of 60 students under the name Mason for Survivors started an online petition calling on their university to terminate the justice’s contract.
With more than 10,000 signatures as of Wednesday, the petition also features a list of demands that includes increasing the number of Title IX officers on campus in proportion to the number of students at the university.
GMU University Life Vice President Rose Pascarell credits the student petition, as well as a similar resolution passed by Mason’s student government on Mar. 28, with convincing the administration to agree to fund new positions in the Title IX office.
“I believe the request had been made to hire an additional coordinator, but there hadn’t been approval for that,” Pascarell said. “I think the students’ very thoughtful set of requests certainly helped to make that happen.”
Pascarell says Mason is also working to add more counselors and to put more resources into its Student Support and Advocacy Center, which provides educational programming, consultations, and other resources related to interpersonal violence, personal wellness, and drug and alcohol use.
Mason Police Chief Carl Rowan told the roughly 100 students gathered in GMU’s The HUB ballroom on Apr. 16 that his department has already implemented changes to its protocols and training programs in response to demands in the Mason for Survivors petition and the student government resolution.
In the campus police reform section of its petition, Mason for Survivors called on the university to hire a sexual assault coordinator for the Mason Police Department that would be on campus 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
The petition also says police should be required to inform survivors of sexual violence of their right to a free peer advocate from the Student Support and Advocacy Center, report all incidents of sexual harassment and violence to students within 30 days, and have all officers and cadets undergo comprehensive, trauma-informed sexual violence training.
The student government resolution expressed the body’s support for “greater sensitivity training and accountability with Mason PD.”
While Rowan did not specify how the campus police department has altered its training and protocols, Pascarell says the department has committed to having all officers and recruits undergo trauma-informed training to properly interview people who report experiences of sexual assault.
“Previously, there were just a few officers, so now [there’s] a commitment to train the entire force,” Pascarell said. “So, if something happens to a student, no matter what time of day, no matter what officer responds, they will have a level of additional expertise around how to respond to students.”
Moderated by Elijah Nichols, a freshman and vice chair of the GMU student government’s government and community relations committee, Mason for Survivors organized the town hall on sexual assault prevention to give students an opportunity to express their concerns and ideas to Mason administrators.
The event opened with sexual violence survivors sharing their stories, a segment that was closed to media. It was followed by an open question-and-answer session with administrators, including President Ángel Cabrera, Provost and Executive Vice President David Wu, and Scalia Law School Senior Associate Dean Alison Price.
As students challenged the decision to hire Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault and misconduct by three different women before being confirmed to the Supreme Court on Oct. 6, administrators at the town hall largely defended the move, even as they applauded the student survivors who recounted their experiences and reaffirmed the university’s commitment to eradicating sexual violence from its campus.
Wu says that, while all faculty hiring is a collective decision, individual schools and academic departments are primarily responsible for handling their own hires, and Mason’s administration usually does not override their decisions unless there are legal issues.
Admitting that even some members of his team took issue with Kavanaugh’s hiring, Cabrera argued that allowing faculty to make hires with minimal interference from administration, even if the individual in question brings controversy, is crucial to maintaining academic freedom and independence.
“Even though you disagree with this result, the process is integral to how the university operates,” Cabrera told students.
Though she was not involved in Kavanaugh’s selection, Price volunteered to represent Mason’s law school at the town hall, because she wants to be able to bring back students’ concerns to other administrators and faculty members.
“I want to make sure that, for every hire going forward, the law school is thoughtful about the implications for all students,” Price said.
Graciela Billingsley, a junior studying conflict analysis and resolution, says she was heartened by the fact that administrators agreed to sit down and talk with students, even as she felt that questions regarding whether the university is equipped to provide students with mental health support and how Kavanaugh’s hiring has affected Mason’s image remain unresolved.
Speaking for himself rather than for the Mason Student Government, Nichols expressed pleasant surprise at the number of students who attended the town hall, noting for comparison’s sake that the student government’s last town hall drew a paltry 13 people.
“Obviously, we might not be on the same page on some issues, frankly, but it’s important that students keep coming out and they keep urging the administration to take note of what we have to say,” Nichols said. “…I’m grateful for all the students that stood up.”
While students’ reactions to the range of the town hall discussion seemed generally positive, skepticism of Mason’s ability to create an environment where all students, including survivors of sexual violence, can feel safe lingered.
Junior Kailey Adkins, a member of Mason for Survivors, said that, even with two additional coordinators, GMU’s Title IX office will still be inadequately staffed to serve the university’s 34,000-plus student population.
“I think we need a proportionate number of Title IX officers to our students,” Adkins said. “…While they are taking steps, like Provost Wu said, there’s still a lot more work to do, and we’re going to keep pushing until we meet the bare minimum of safety and security that we need as students here.”