By the end of Sarah Wake’s first week on the job in October as assistant provost and the University’s new Title IX Coordinator, she was already leading trainings on issues in sexual harassment.
The Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics had requested help to prevent problems that departments elsewhere have encountered. Faculty members, graduate students and a few undergraduates engaged deeply in a question-and-answer session. The training reaffirms the University’s commitment to a workplace free of harassment and discrimination, and addresses University employees’ responsibility to report sexual misconduct. Wake outlines what to do if you are an observer and what to do if you are a victim.
“Faculty and students are thirsty for this,” Wake said. “I want them to come talk to me about any aspect of Title IX. To have a campus free from discrimination and sexual harassment, we have to have a dialogue.”
As the University’s director of equal opportunity programs, Wake has primary responsibility for ensuring that the University is in compliance with federal laws regarding sexual misconduct.
That task has three major components, Wake said:
- Wake oversees the effective response to instances of Title IX violations, ensuring that the University’s policies and procedures allow her office to react in a way that complies with the law and serves the campus community.
- Equally important, she is leading the design of training programs to build a proactive culture on Title IX issues, ideally preventing problems before they occur.
- Her ultimate goal is for the University to be a national leader in responding to and preventing sexual misconduct and related issues, and to serve as a resource for other institutions, including outreach to schools in the broader Chicago community.
“Most schools are taking steps to prevent violations and respond to them, but what makes this university different is that we could be in a position to take a leadership role,” Wake said. “I’m excited to be part of a great team at UChicago that is deeply committed to these issues.”
The scope of Title IX means that Wake helps address issues ranging from recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty to ensuring a welcoming climate while respecting free speech, and coordinating policy and programs related to gender equity. Her position in the Office of the Provost means that she helps address these issues across the University, with a focus on complaints related to University faculty, other academic employees, or staff. She also works in concert with other University staff members who focus on specific areas of sexual misconduct.
While many people know Title IX relates to sports equity and responding to student-student sexual assault, they may be less familiar with other aspects of the federal law. Since she arrived, Wake has led two to three training sessions a week, mostly for departments, and has met with more than 300 members of the University community.
Wake’s approach to the training session in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics was “perfect,” said Angela Olinto, the Homer J. Livingston Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and current chair of the department. “She was very practical in responding to the questions we had.”
Longstanding interest in civil rights
As a college student at Loyola University in Chicago, Wake interned with the Cook County Victim Assistance Unit, preparing sexual assault survivors to attend trials and, when necessary, testify. After law school at the University of Notre Dame, she joined McGuireWoods LLP as an employment litigator, where she worked for nearly seven years. Her work focused on harassment, discrimination, and retaliation including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the Equal Pay Act.
For two years before she came to UChicago, Wake served as the Director of the Office of Institutional Equity and the Title IX Coordinator at Notre Dame. She said that experience gave her valuable insight into building effective training and response programs, as well as working with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to ensure compliance with the law. She also served as the chief of staff to the Vice President for Research at Notre Dame, where she focused on developing diversity and inclusion.
In addition to her professional experience, Wake did published research as a law student on issues of sexual assault in the prison system. Her life experiences have also given her a close-up look at the psychological impact of discrimination.
“You feel like you don’t belong,” she said. “Sometimes you wonder if you’re making it up. You’re wondering if you did something to contribute to it.” Wake wants everyone, especially students, to know she welcomes their thoughts and input. “There is nothing more important to me than ensuring students’ academic experience here is a positive one.”