Universities and the Department of Education have threatened faculty’s academic freedom, due process and shared governance in the way universities handle sexual assault, according to a draft report released last Thursday by the American Association of University Professors.
Title IX, a law prohibiting sex-based discrimination, was expanded to require universities to adequately investigate issues of sexual assault. In efforts to comply with this law, college administrators have sought to “punish protected academic speech” while failing to address “gross and repeated sexual harrassment,” according to the AAUP.
“We do not argue that speech can never create a hostile environment, nor that all speech is protected, only that matters of speech are difficult to negotiate and always require attention to First Amendment guarantees and to academic freedom,” the report said.
LaToya Hill, UT-Austin’s Title IX coordinator, said the Title IX office may investigate faculty and staff behavior outside of academic discussions, but it does not regulate the content of what is taught inside the classroom.
“Part of our job is to take a look at that [behavior] and see if it truly does meet the standard [for a Title IX violation],” she said. “We work with the faculty and the student to discuss the situation, and they get an educational moment for both parties.”
The AAUP report cited an example where the University of Colorado-Boulder investigated a professor for possible sexual harassment after receiving complaints from students who participated in a classroom play about the global sex trade.
The report recommends that universities distinguish from speech that meets the definition of a hostile environment and violates Title IX from merely offensive or hurtful speech. The report also recommends including faculty members in the development of Title IX policies.
Hill said at least three faculty members serve on their Title IX committee to ensure both faculty and administrators have a voice in creating policy. She also said many members of the University community do not adequately understand Title IX policies, and the University needs to hire more staff members to educate faculty, staff and students about applicable Title IX policies.
“We need additional staffing to help and really look through the educational awareness [issue] and how we make sure the University community is well trained and educated and is aware of their responsibilities,” Hill said.
The AAUP report also recommended restorative justice methods, which focus on making amends with those offended, instead of punishing offenders to address some forms of misconduct.
“[Restorative justice] focuses on ways to heal from harm, and it does so in a way that broadens our dialogue and fosters communication,” said Caitlin Sulley, research project director at UT’s Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault.
The UT System is still reviewing the report, UT System spokesperson Jenny Caputo said.
“The UT System takes sexual assault and sexual harassment allegations very seriously, but we are also constantly mindful of the rights of the accused, whether they are faculty, staff or students,” Caputo said in a statement.
Dorie Nolt, education department press secretary, said universities don’t have to choose between academic freedom and fighting discrimination on campus.
“Free speech and safe, equitable and respectful learning environments for students are both fundamental rights, and they are not in conflict,” Nolt said in a statement.