Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Monday, February 18, 2019

Staff editorial: University’s lack of transparency on fourth Title IX complaint is self-defeating

AU must empower students to do the change-making work they were brought to do

Staff editorial: University’s lack of transparency on fourth Title IX complaint is self-defeating

AU students protest sexual assault on campus in 2014.

In November, the Department of Education opened a fourth investigation into potential sexual violence violations of Title IX at American University. AU remains under investigation for three complaints filed in 2015, 2016 and 2017. AU is also the only D.C. university that is under investigation for Title IX violations as of Nov. 30. 

There is little known about the complaint itself. One reason for the ambiguity is due to privacy laws and the limited amount of information that the University and Department of Education can legally release about individual complaints. 

But there is another reason why staff, students, faculty and alumni know little about the latest investigation: AU has not notified the community about this investigation as administrators have with previous cases. The Eagle believes that the administration’s lack of transparency on this issue is unsettling and self-defeating.

AU is unique in the dedicated services it offers in its efforts to ensure compliance with Title IX federal guidelines. Regina Curran, AU’s Title IX program officer, and Fariha Quasem, the University’s Title IX investigator, comprise AU’s office dedicated to compliance with the law, which prohibits sexual discrimination in education. The majority of universities do not have dedicated Title IX offices, instead assigning those duties to other administrators.

Despite AU’s leadership on establishing a Title IX office following the first federal complaints, the University continues to misuse its position and privilege as a private university. In this circumstance, AU decided to refrain from notifying the campus community about the new Title IX complaint, citing “consultations with University stakeholders and assessment of best practices in major universities” as the reason for the change. Now, the University will only notify the community when a complaint is “resolved, and not when it is filed,” AU spokesperson Mark Story told The Eagle.

Private universities, like AU, are not bound by the Freedom of Information Act and therefore cannot be legally compelled to provide internal documents and communication regarding issues like Title IX compliance. If administrators do not provide this information voluntarily, the work of student media outlets like The Eagle becomes more difficult to complete. Most importantly, the decision to not disclose new complaints prevents the entire student body from knowing about the issues that impact their lives on campus and off.

If AU is in the business of creating changemakers, then it should be empowering students and student journalists with information. The University should have been pushing and advocating for students to participate in the Notice and Comment, a period in which individuals and organizations can voice their thoughts on new proposed Title IX policies that will almost certainly affect how AU handles sexual assault complaints.

When AU obscures or refuses to release information that directly affects students, the administration plays into a self-defeating cycle that diminishes institutional memory. As older students familiar with previous Title IX complaints and sexual assault prevention activism on campus graduate, newer students become less and less knowledgeable about the issues that affect their everyday lives at AU. 

Perhaps this is the University’s intention — to ensure that fewer students and AU community members are aware of the problems and controversies of AU’s recent past and present. This might be a solid public relations strategy, but if the University seeks to truly address its challenges, this approach is not the answer. 

The University’s continued lack of transparency hamstrings new generations of students from being involved in the student activism that was the force behind new structures and programs like instituting a more survivor-friendly investigative model for complaints, creating and making Empower AU consent education mandatory for freshmen and many other changes. These programs were the product of dialogue and action, not damage control and public relations.

This new Title IX complaint can be and should be an impetus for re-igniting student activism for sexual assault survivors. It can be and should be the groundwork for continued discourse on proposed Title IX changes by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. It can and should be an occasion for reminding students of the importance of consent education and bystander intervention.

The Eagle encourages the University to release a campus-wide notification of the new Title IX complaint and future complaints. We request that the University empower students to do the change-making work that they were brought to AU to do.

edpage@theeagleonline.com


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