Q&A: Sarah Wake and Michele Rasmussen discuss Title IX-related issues

The University of Chicago is committed to ensuring an environment in which all members of the University community can participate fully. Sarah Wake, Title IX coordinator for the University and associate provost & director of the Office for Equal Opportunity Programs, recently spoke with UChicago News about the University’s ongoing commitment to addressing issues related to sexual misconduct—a category that includes sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual abuse, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking. Michele Rasmussen, dean of students in the University, spoke about her role in overseeing the student-specific processes in place for the enforcement of University policies concerning sexual misconduct involving students.

Sarah, you have now been at the University of Chicago for a little less than a year. What have you found in that time?

Wake: From my hiring process through my time since joining the University, I really have felt tremendous support, especially from the President and Provost. They are truly committed to these issues and to looking at our policies and processes and making sure that we adjust them when appropriate to ensure that they are effective and compliant. We’ve made significant progress in the last year, and we are poised to build on that progress through the next academic year.

What I have found to be especially important is the role of the faculty and our students. There are countless faculty members who approach me to not only share their support, but also their experiences here at the University and their suggestions on how to do things better. Similarly, we have a committed group of student advocates, including the Phoenix Survivors Alliance, who take a lot of time to meet with me with their suggestions. In my experience, the best way to make progress in this area is to have the engagement of the faculty and the students as well as the support of leadership.

What has been your focus since you arrived?

Wake: First and one of the most important, is the hiring of a deputy Title IX coordinator for students and associate dean of students in the University. I’m pleased that we have hired Shea Wolfe for that role. She is responsible for the initial intake of student reports of sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking. She also is on the front lines working with our student population on education, outreach and the intakes of sexual misconduct matters. She is holding office hours from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays, and she’s in the process of forming a student advisory board concerning issues of sexual misconduct. She will report to me and work extremely closely with Michele Rasmussen and the team in Campus and Student Life on sexual misconduct issues. We plan to continue increasing support in this area. 

Second, as Provost Daniel Diermeier noted in a recent message to campus, we have started to roll out mandatory sexual misconduct trainings for our entire community — students, staff, postdocs, faculty and other academic appointees. These trainings are important because they provide our community with a baseline understanding of the University’s Policy on Harassment, Discrimination and Sexual Misconduct—what it prohibits as well as what it requires of the members of our community.

I am also keeping track of where we’re receiving complaints, to help determine whether we should increase outreach or training in those areas, and we require those involved in the intake, resolution and complaints process to undergo additional training that includes training on trauma-informed response. This includes the hearing panels, housing staff, UCPD and college advisors. This training ensures that we’re responding consistently and in a way that’s supportive of all the people involved in the process.

What kind of progress has the University made recently on Title IX-related issues involving students?

Wake: There are several initiatives that the Campus and Student Life team put into place prior to my arrival that are continuing now. For the first time last fall, Campus and Student Life conducted in-person training for more than 2,200 graduate students. I continue to oversee those trainings. Another initiative that was launched before I arrived is the Umatter website, which was designed in response to student requests for an easy and simple-to-understand website with information about process policy and resources. 

Rasmussen: Prior to Sarah’s arrival, CSL also significantly redesigned the O-Week program, the orientation program for first-year students in the College, based on student feedback. And that’s something we constantly review and continue to develop with guidance from Sarah’s office. We also developed a campaign about domestic partner violence and consent for the autumn quarter. These initiatives were done, in large part, in response to findings from the climate survey that was conducted in the spring of 2015.

Did the results from the Spring 2015 Climate Survey inform other aspects of your work?

Wake: Definitely. One thing that was troubling to me was that fewer than 50 percent of the people who responded to the survey were familiar with the University’s process for responding to complaints of sexual misconduct. Students lacked confidence in the University’s response and were not aware of the confidential resources that are available to them.

Learning those key pieces of information allowed us to develop our goal for the last year and the upcoming year, which is to educate people about the process and the resources that are available to them. We really want to see an increase in students’ confidence in how we’re responding to these matters. Our ultimate goal is to eliminate this behavior on campus.

I feel strongly about increasing people’s confidence in the process and dispelling this notion that things are swept under the rug; they aren’t, but confidentiality principles substantially limit our ability to release certain information that might give students better insight into and confidence in our processes. Sarah Wake

As part of the University’s efforts to increase transparency, this past year we started to release annual statistics regarding the number of reports that we receive, the number of students that request investigations as a result of those reports, and the number of cases that go into the hearing process as a result of those investigations as well as the outcomes of those hearings. I feel strongly about increasing people’s confidence in the process and dispelling this notion that things are swept under the rug; they aren’t, but confidentiality principles substantially limit our ability to release certain information that might give students better insight into and confidence in our processes. We are committed to educating people on how these cases are actually investigated, adjudicated and resolved to the extent possible.

[Read a Q&A here about the process of reporting, investigating and adjudicating sexual assault misconduct at UChicago.]

UChicago is currently one of many universities under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Where does the investigation stand and how will the University respond as we learn more from the OCR?

Wake: The investigation with the OCR is ongoing. We have been and will continue to give our full cooperation to the OCR. It is difficult to predict when the investigation will be complete, but we anticipate that we will know more in the coming months. We look forward to continuing our work with the OCR, as we share a commitment to ensuring that all students can participate in our educational programs and activities free from unlawful discrimination.

What resources are available to students and survivors?

Wake: There are resources available to all members of our community, and a complete list of those resources can be found in our policy for sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual misconduct. The resources include both on-campus and off-campus services. The Umatter website is a great hub of information for students, and the Provost’s website is a great resource for campus community members. Of course, I am always a resource to the community.

Rasmussen: As a member of the UChicago community, we are here to provide support and offer a robust set of resources that care for and support students. A few key resources that are worth highlighting:

  • The Student Counseling Service is a completely confidential service that students can use, not only for issues related to sexual misconduct but for any issues pertaining to behavioral health and well-being.
  • The Sexual Assault Dean on Call program is a very important resource at UChicago. These specially trained staff are also confidential, which means that they don’t report details of the incidents disclosed to them without the complaining party’s consent. If students need assistance or have questions about policies or procedures and are unsure about their options, the SADoC is great place to start.
  • Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention: In addition to the larger University-wide initiatives, RSVP and some student groups offer programming throughout the year, including the Red Flag Campaign, Sexual Violence Awareness Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month and the Clothes Line Project.

Where do you hope that we’re heading in the long term?  

Wake: Currently, we’re focused on how we respond to reports of sexual misconduct and how we educate our community on resources and expectations. The next step is to determine how we can best combat this conduct on our campus. We are lucky to have faculty who think about and conduct extensive research on these issues. So I think we’re well poised to find a viable path to positively addressing a problem that all colleges and universities have long struggled with.

Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Wake: Since my arrival, I’ve sensed that the confidence in our processes among students and faculty is starting to increase, but we still have work to do. The tone is starting to shift from “this is what has gone wrong in the past” to “this is how we want this to improve in the future.” And that, to me, has been the rewarding part of this job—to know that I have been able to help people through difficult situations and make a positive impact.