What MSU must get right about Title IX and where we need to go

Lansing State Journal guest column published Nov.  26, 2022  

This opinion column contains content that may trigger traumatic memories for those who have experienced harassment in all its forms. 

I remember, very clearly, the first time I experienced harassment because of my gender. It was not subtle.

Harassment is a behavior we have been working to address in higher education and the workplace for generations. It predates my time as a leader and that of many of my peers. But how we respond will shape how safe, welcoming and inclusive our communities truly are as well as our collective legacy as leaders.

I want to elaborate on this present moment and provide an outline for the future. Michigan State University has been on a very intentional journey to improve the ways in which we address relationship violence and sexual misconduct, as well as workplace incivility, in our campus community over the past five years. Have we gotten it right for everyone? No. Are we educatable by our journey? Do we demand of ourselves accountability and continuous improvement? Yes, and yes again.

So, what have we done at MSU?
A yearlong study recently published by USA Today details that our institution receives more RVSM-related reports than any other school the outlet surveyed from 2014-2020. Last year alone, we received a total of 1,774 reports. The study also outlines that we launched the most formal investigations, and we held more students accountable through expulsions for sexual misconduct than our peers.

This data, while sobering, shows we’re on the right track. It demonstrates student survivors felt comfortable reporting issues of sexual misconduct to university officials. But why? 

The reporting and outcomes of those reports are because of our significant investments in education and outreach on RVSM and our comprehensive mandatory reporting policies for all members of our university, which Spartans take very seriously.   

We also invested in more staff in our Office for Civil Rights and Title IX Education and Compliance. The USA Today study notes, “In some ways, Michigan State is a model for how colleges should address sexual misconduct. It dedicates 42 full-time employees to Title IX cases and survivor advocacy, including prevention, education and outreach specialists, investigators and therapists.”

In addition, we have invested heavily in health promotion across campus with programs that address healthy behaviors, healthy nutrition and a healthy mindset. This additional group of MSU professionals work upstream of issues that arise when a lack of respect conditions for behavior that is damaging to others as well as to self.

Where are we going?
The USA Today article was based on data through 2020. Since then, under President Emeritus Samuel Stanley, a Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Strategic Plan was created that outlines our work. This is the only university-level strategic plan of its kind that we are aware of, which is interoperable with our university strategic plan and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan. These plans — work products of the entire campus and the blueprints for our shared journey — already have resulted in progress.

Indeed, in July of this year, the independent third-party investigator Cozen O’Connor noted that the MSU Title IX Office’s investigations are fair, impartial and thorough, and the institution follows its policies and the Title IX regulations appropriately.

In November, an internal audit of the Title IX office and a report solicited by the Board of Trustees identified additional ways in which our processes could be further enhanced, and we are acting on the recommendations in each report. These process changes include valuing and enhancing our existing staff and bringing more professionals into this body of work, contracting with a minority-owned firm in Detroit to help address timeliness issues and creating a streamlined approach to communications between the administration and the Board of Trustees on Title IX matters.

Most importantly, we are enhancing work in our community. Moreover, we are surveying campus to assess our current climate, so we ask rather than assume, learn rather than point and act rather than just hope. And we will share what we learn with faculty, staff and students so we can all make the next generation of intentional changes and investments that are necessary to instill a culture of confidence, community and care.

MSU is on a pathway toward a more safe, welcoming and inclusive campus community. And while our direction and momentum are good, we will not be satisfied until everyone who passes through our doors feels confident and enabled to achieve their major as well as their mission in life. This is our commitment to those who travel on the pathway created by our experiences and by the differences we make.

Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D., is interim president of Michigan State University.