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Wednesday, September 19, 2018


It takes a lot of work, energy, reflection, training, and continuing education to craft and execute an effective process to investigate and adjudicate complaints about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and a range of what we call Title IX offenses. It is much easier to be critical of these processes. After the Dear Colleague Letter was released by the Department of Education in 2011, sexual assault survivors were emboldened to come forward and challenge their campuses to do better. Colleges were supposed to manage these complaints effectively before then, but many were not doing so sufficiently, so the Department of Education clearly spelled out expectations. At their core, Universities were being told that sexual assault was the most egregious form of gender discrimination. These students were often left to navigate an impossible learning and social environment before, during, and after reporting a grievance.

At Trinity University, we looked at our hearing model and made a seismic shift. The traditional hearing model pits one student against another in a hearing in front of a panel where sensitive and intrusive questions are posed as facts are gathered and credibility is weighed. This can be extremely traumatizing. We switched our model to an investigative process in 2014. Under this model, we have about 25 trained faculty and staff members who serve in different roles in investigations. Each student is appointed a process advisor, there are two appointed investigators, and two others serve, with a student from the Student Conduct Panel, as a hearing panel. (This is our administrative process. The criminal process is handled by TUPD.) The new model shifts the perception of a University-influenced format to one that is represented from an array of members from our campus community.

Certain values are reflected in our process. First, students are only asked to share their accounts once in the investigative interview. Second, the idea is to collect all of the information, have it reviewed by all parties, and prepare a summary report with recommendations. The work is front-loaded and not done in a hearing setting that mirrors a trial. Third, the hearing places the investigators on the hot seat, where the panel asks them to clarify their conclusions and recommendations, mostly eliminating the adversarial hearing model previously used. Fourth, the process is evidence based. While there is always some level of credibility assessment, investigators are trained that it isn't what they think, or feel, but what they know as they draw their conclusions.

Additionally the process is designed to be fair, transparent, and compassionate. Students may include support persons (friends or parents), attorneys, and their process advisors. There are no "got ya" moments, and there is acknowledgement that reporting and responding students each face certain levels of trauma for very different reasons. Reporting students worry that they won't be believed. Responding students worry that they are assumed guilty because of the sexual politics around sexual assault on campus. And in the end, while we want students and their families to assess the process for how it is conducted, many, naturally, assess the process based on the outcome. It is not uncommon that those who agree with the outcome typically find the process, while not easy, to be quite fair. Those who disagree feel less positive. But those who experience it, more and more, understand how decisions are made. We coach students that the outcome doesn't affirm nor invalidate what has happened. The outcome is really about whether or not there is sufficient evidence that a violation took place, or not. There is more, and policies and procedures are available on-line. Campuses, including ours, have a duty to constantly review policies and procedures as well as campus climate. This is evolving and not static.

After The Dear Colleague Letter (now rescinded), it didn't take long before accused students felt their rights were being trampled. In some cases they were. So there was a backlash. This was seen in the new guidelines issued under the current administration through Betsy DeVos, somewhat of a departure from the Obama-Biden era that categorized assault as gender discrimination.The pendulum swung.

While all of these things were making the news and exploding, it was entertainers and politicians that were lobbing grenades at campuses for their "kangaroo courts". Outsiders had simplistic views of these complex issues. First, they would say that the police, not universities, should handle cases. That is absurd because the legal process and criminal standard is so high that it would basically say survivors had no chance to continue their education in a non-discriminatory environment. The administrative process is about rules. Campuses wouldn't allow a physical assault, peddling drugs, and hazing - all illegal acts. Second, the popular notion that schools were sweeping things under the rug was ridiculous in the era of social media. If schools were doing this, they were horrible at it.

And then... Harvey Weinstein happened. Bill Cosby happened. Matt Lauer happened, Al Franken and Roy Moore happened. And the genital-grabbing President of the United States happened. The dishonor roll is LONG and growing. So while Claire McKaskill and others were rooting out problems on campuses, which by-and-large, were developing fair and sensitive processes, the people in government and entertainment were the worst unchecked offenders. Thank goodness for the #MeToo movement for revealing not only their boorish behavior of many men but for throwing open the door on the hypocrisy of those who made colleges the scapegoats of sexual crimes and an overly sexualized culture.

Now, the Brett Kavanaugh case reveals even further double standards. While the new DeVos rules require charge letters, extend investigation times, and hint at a higher standard of evidence, our government ignores the same guidelines and works to schedule a congressional hearing, with no clear procedures, and that likely will re-traumatize the accuser in the most public of settings, and tramples the rights of the accused, regardless of what position one takes on this. The government can't even follow the basic tenets they are proscribing to others. Christine Blasey-Ford is right to wants a proper investigation before she is hauled out in front of the nation to be interrogated in televised partisan hearing. 

The people with power and influence in national tone-setting, in Washington and Hollywood, have passed judgment on colleges and their students and bemoaned a broken system. Many of these people, in their glass houses, create the laws and a culture that deposits sexual discrimination at the doorstep of our universities. Given their horrific behavior, their audacity to criticize colleges, when at the same time their own houses are in disarray, is troubling and two-faced. Perhaps they should stop preaching and try listening and learning. Though we are imperfect, to be sure, taking lessons from American campuses may be a good place for them to start.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Monster's Inferno

Doom and Gloom?
The Monster is Born
No one is really to blame, unless you want to blame everyone. Decades ago, as colleges and universities started to more aggressively compete for students, they sought every possible competitive edge. At its core, the student higher educational experience should be about access, quality instruction, available courses and majors, and reasonable outcomes, many of us are selling the whole experience. This makes sense. And while the major part of a student's education occurs in the classroom, a great deal of learning happens elsewhere on campus. Students learn self-advocacy, how to live in a community, and have ample opportunities to explore their identity and character in a vast array of settings. We know that having students engaged with peers and involved in meaningful activities increases their satisfaction and likelihood that they will persist to graduation. For traditional campuses, such as Trinity University, we also know that providing a safe, comfortable, and dynamic environments are important to the student experience and retention.

But it costs money to do all of these things. And as school's compete for students there is pressure to outshine competitors in EVERYTHING. Consumers (parents and students) are seeking the best places, the best deals, and the perfect match. So campus A may have a fantastic library, while campus B has the best Art facility, and campus C has the top Business program. This works against all institutions as pressure increases to have it all. "Yes, I like campus X because of their residence halls, but campus Y has better food, while campus C has the best workout facility I have seen yet..." Schools are in an arms race to have as many top experiences and stuff as possible in order to compete. The campus rock wall became a symbol of excess.

Of course, this means we all have to spend more and that means charging more. And thus the arms race is in full bloom as schools are being crushed under their own desires to offer the best while students and families, expecting the best, bemoan the rising costs. Thus the refrain, "For what I pay, I expect this... and this... and this." So all schools struggle with choices. The amount Trinity has spent on high-speed internet is staggering. But we have to have it, though streaming Netflix or porn is not really part of the core academic mission. Complaints about food, parking, library hours, and fitness areas drive improvements while at the same time we have to keep pace with faculty salaries and instructional support. It seems backwards. Sometimes we have to make tough choices and we simply can't have everything.

Excellence versus Perfection
This has been on my mind in recent years and I have talked more and more about it, publicly. We strive for excellence at Trinity. It is one of our core values. After over 30 years here I have seen firsthand that by-and-large the faculty and staff are all pulling the same direction and are committed to offering a top caliber academic and collegiate experience. In offering excellence, though, we have created an expectation of perfection. Every issue and concern, big or small, is presented to the campus authorities as a broken promise of what we sold when we were recruiting our students and families. With each "failure" to deliver, the chorus of disappointment grows louder, harsher, and more dramatic. Recently an old pipe burst, creating a lengthy repair and inconvenience (though no interruption in hot water for a significant time). Nevertheless, some expressed unhappiness that Trinity was somehow falling short on its promise. We are being crushed by the expectations we have created, that every class, every teacher, every dorm room, every roommate, every facility, and every meal is simply perfect. Indeed meeting and managing expectations has become exhausting.

Broken Promises
Students and families are not wrong to have high expectations. In recent years, many issues have percolated up where the University needed to (and needs to) improve. These include dining services, academic support services, and the residential facilities. We are making headway. Currently, there are pressing issues related to advising, Pathways, class availability, student mental health, Chapman-Halsell, more residence hall issues, and diversity. (People are right to express deep concern about being able to have course availability in order to graduate on time. It is the promise we have to keep.) All of these issues are being addressed and our strategic plan has gone a long way in shrinking the list of wants and needs. However, all of these things have heavy price tags that require choices and prioritization, and they can't all be addressed at once. And yet... The expectations we have created bury us in our failures to deliver in every aspect of the Trinity experience. And so we hear, again, "For what we pay..."

Chasing Happiness, Managing Complaints

I hear time and again how for the most part, students and families love their Trinity experiences. The quality of the faculty tops the list as does the supportive community. We offer, and usually deliver personal attention and the campus facilities and grounds are incredible. Students, families, the Board, the administration, the alumni, and the faculty and staff all care deeply about this place and what it represents and what it can be. Mostly, life is good.

So how do we manage complaints when they arise? There are some that are simply minor distractions. Parking is a perfect example. With all the important issues on campus, this is simply low on the priority list, given that there are always spaces, just not always convenient spaces. But there are some really important issues that need attention, several of which were mentioned earlier. As I moderate the parent Facebook page and advise the student government, I routinely hear the issues that are being raised. Myself and some of my colleagues often agree with the issues as presented, though admittedly we are fatigued with the tone, level, persistence and vitriol in some of what we hear. And we don't know how to address the competing needs that all come with associated facility and staffing costs. Again, this is the monster we have created.

The TU Parent Facebook Page and the Student Government Association are perfect venues for parents and students to test out their concerns. Many often begin with "Is anyone else noticing this, frustrated with that, or experiencing what I am?" That was sure effective in getting our attention this August on some residential facility issues. Unfortunately, these issues often evoke everything this post is about: expectations, perfection, disappointment, anger, and resentment.

I have increasingly been coaching students and parents that the best feedback is that which is direct, specific, and immediate. Many issues are isolated. Some are not. Testing the waters with others to see if there are shared concerns should lead to an elevation of issues to the proper departments. If those departments are unresponsive, then contacting the corresponding Vice President is the next best step. In my experience, my colleagues are all-in and extremely responsive to this type of feedback. In many cases minor issues can quickly and effectively be resolved. And bigger issues that require resources are much more likely to be addressed when the decision-makers in the administration hear firsthand the legitimate, impassioned, and powerful concerns of students and families. This is far more effective than throwing comments into the abyss where lower-level staffers like me have to relay concerns that we have no authority to address.

There is Hope
We recently revised our student complaint process, offering students more structure in expressing their grievances. This Complaints Web page may be helpful to parents and families as well, in at least identifying where to register complaints and concerns. Direct, specific, immediate...

We can only improve when we hear from all of our constituents. That can't stop. Feedback stokes change. We have created high expectations and we need to deliver on these, no question. And we also need understanding, patience, and support as we make very difficult decisions to best move this institution forward, and manage the very expectations that sometimes are crushing us.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Risky Business

Sophomore Robert Foye, 19, passed away late in January 2018 after inhaling nitrous oxide from canisters called "whippets." He was beginning the spring semester of his sophomore year and had just communicated his excitement, and optimism for the new term to his dad, Robert Sr. It wasn't even a given Robert would return that January. Substances, including alcohol, had gotten the best of him during his time as a student. But Robert was hard to say "no" to. He came back with a detailed plan to get it right.

Robert became known to staff on campus following a series of alcohol-related issues. Despite this, he was an extremely positive and engaging young man. He was full of life and had a huge personality.  He was well-traveled, bright, and driven. His family worked with me as the Dean of Students, and even more with Robert's Residential Life Coordinator, Nathan Tuttle, my son. Nathan and Robert's mom, Kristianna, had regular conversations about how we could help her son. Things had gotten bad enough that Robert lost his privileges to live on campus. This is highly unusual. But it was decided that while Robert and campus living were not compatible, we all wanted to see him try to continue his education while he tackled some of the substance issues that plagued him. This simply wouldn't have happened save for the extraordinary involvement and support of Robert's parents.

During the first face-to-face meeting between the Foye's (Robert  and Robert Sr.) and the Tuttle's we laid out the plan for Robert's recovery and success. It was evident that Robert Sr., despite living in Shanghai, would be fully engaged in monitoring Robert's academic progress and physical and emotional health. Robert Sr., as was his son, is charismatic, affable, fun-loving, driven, and has a huge heart. While some parents might be mad at the Dean for kicking their kid off campus, Robert Sr. never expressed such sentiments. He was all forward-looking and focused on what would come next for Robert. Without that, we wouldn't have made that arrangement.

At that same meeting Mr. Foye mentioned that he and his son were headed to the Trinity gym to play basketball. An avid hoops junkie, he travels with basketball shoes and a ball hoping to find a game,  anywhere, as a respite from the wine wholesaling business. Well, the Dean and his son play a little ball and we asked if we could join in. So the administrators, the troubled student, and the traveling dad formed a bond over games of two-on-two, a ritual we would continue whenever Senior would travel to San Antonio to keep up with his son.

When Robert was out of contact for two days in late January, Robert Sr. reached out to Nathan who stopped by the apartment and received no response. Robert Sr. contacted the apartment manager who checked in on Robert and made the horrible discovery that he had passed. Robert Sr.'s first call was to Nathan, who then called me. He was in shock, and so were we.

Robert Sr., I should note, is a confident basketball player and a bit of a trash talker. At the campus service for his son the following week he noted how the Foye's never lost to the Tuttle's. Indeed, the one constant in all of the pairings we tried on the court was that Robert Sr. never lost. Of course, he is huge, and bristled at my nickname for him (Chuck Nevitt) as he saw himself as more of a Kobe Bryant style player. The man can shoot. At the service he thought it was too somber and wanted to add some levity by needling me for being bested by him to lift spirits of those in attendance, because of course he would.

Robert's mom and siblings are devastated. Robert Sr.'s grief is intense, and lingering, and he misses his son dearly. But he is also a person who looks ahead and his positive nature is not of the kind that can be constrained. There were some things Mr. Foye wanted to see happen after his son's death. First, he wanted us to create a policy to ban whippets. This is in the works. Second, he wanted us to warn students about the dangers of risky behaviors, including use of these canisters. He has doggedly pursued companies that make access to these items to let them know of the tragic risks they pose. And third, he wanted to set up a scholarship in Robert's name.

While the staff could try to share Robert's story with students we knew there was really only one way to do it. We asked Mr. Foye to do a video (above) and gave him a rough outline. His son William produced it. This was shown for the first time at the orientation for new students in 2018. It was part of a session about student health and safety ("Triage)" that included information on alcohol, sexual assault, mental health, and more. It is sad, impactful, and still has a positive message. The video starts the program and is an attention grabber. It will be used for years to come. The scholarship fund is nearing its goal from Robert Sr.'s sheer willpower. He hopes to raise $100,000 by October for an endowed Trinity Scholarship in Robert's name.

Knowing full well that their son took risks, Mr. and Mrs. Foye want others to stop and think about their choices. They don't want any student and their family to endure what they are going through. For Robert Sr., the video doesn't diminish his pain, but he is pushing forward the only way he knows how, with guts, action, and his big personality. He is doing everything he can to flip his loss. That's all he knows.  

Donations can be made to the Robert Lawrence Foye Scholarship Foundation on PayPal.