Students’ concerns prompt review of sexual misconduct policies, resources

Administrators answer questions, concerns during campus forum


In response to concerns brought forward by students and alumni online, Baldwin Wallace held a campus forum on Jan. 17 in Strosacker Hall to address concerns about the handling of sexual misconduct investigations on campus.

Nearly 200 BW students, alumni, faculty, and staff attended the event, which ran nearly an hour over its scheduled two-hour time frame.

The forum, which was prompted by social media posts criticizing the university’s handling of safety and sexual misconduct issues, featured university administrators emphasizing that the school was committed to both ensuring students’ safety and improving their perceptions of their safety on campus.

The night began with a conciliatory tone, as President Robert Helmer acknowledged in opening remarks the students’ concerns and stressed the need for the school to continually examine its efforts.

“If one person on our campus doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t feel supported, then there’s still work to do,” he said. “And that’s what tonight is about: talking about the work that has been done, the work that still needs to be done, and how we move forward as a campus.”

Helmer also announced the formation of a new task force on campus safety as a means of putting action to the discussion, indicating that the forum needed to be a “moment in what must be a longstanding conversation on this campus.”

The task force — co-chaired by Dr. Sophia Kallergis, director of the BW counseling center, and Dr. Tom Sutton, professor of political science — will be expected to present its recommendations to BW by the end of this semester, Helmer said.

Those efforts, Helmer said, will begin by addressing a list of ten demands curated by students and alumni during a meeting in the first week of the semester, organized by junior Kathleen Moser and alumnus Aziz Ahmad, who together had initially raised concerns on Twitter.

The forum itself was held to fulfill one of the ten demands. During the forum, Helmer grouped the other items into three main areas of concern — policies, personnel and the availability and communication of student resources — that he indicated would need to be addressed.

The forum featured both prepared questions delivered by a moderator and open-floor questions posed directly by forum attendees, which were addressed to a panel of university administrators. Questions in the open floor segment included those about current policies and procedures, Title IX training for faculty and staff, creating a more tolerant community and communicating available services.

In addition, a number of concerns were raised from and about the Conservatory of Music. Though a refrain during the evening was for students to address concerns with one of five Title IX investigators on campus, a number of Conservatory students indicated that they felt they had been dissuaded by Conservatory administration from pursuing their sexual misconduct cases. In addition, a faculty member said during the forum she had been led to believe that the department had its own Title IX administrator.

Conservatory administration was not present at the forum, but Susan Van Vorst, dean of the Conservatory of Music, said in an email that the Conservatory follows university protocol in Title IX matters and that “there never has been a time when any student, faculty or staff member has been dissuaded or discouraged with regard to reporting a Title IX issue.”

Van Vorst also wrote that she was “not aware of any reason for the misconception voiced during the forum” in regard to a difference in the reporting process for the Conservatory.

“There never has been a separate Title IX administrator for the Conservatory, nor has Conservatory administration ever messaged or suggested such,” she said. “Faculty and staff are here to support students and share a common concern for the safety of all individuals on campus.”

After the forum, an email was sent to Conservatory students, faculty, and staff clarifying the Title IX process. A forum for Conservatory students to express their concerns to Charles “CJ” Harkness, chief diversity officer and Title IX coordinator, is scheduled for Feb. 5.

In addition to those comments focused on the Conservatory, several student also indicated during the forum they felt they had been dissuaded or otherwise impeded from reporting sexual misconduct. Helmer and Harkness each emphasized that no faculty member or administrator should discourage a student from reporting a sexual misconduct case, and they encouraged students to report those instances — past or present — to any of the school’s five discrimination investigators.

“If any member of our community is being dissuaded from making a complaint, that is simply wrong,” said Helmer at one point in the forum. “Please come forward and let us know, because that is just wrong. It should not happen.”

Despite the invitation, students who had previously been unable to report may be hesitant to “re-report” to a system they have already lost faith in, said Ahmad, a 2016 graduate.

“If you’re asking [students] to re-report to the system that they tried to report to the first time, then that’s disheartening,” he said after the forum.

Moser, who along with Ahmad had initiated the discussion on Twitter and then organized an on-campus meeting to create the list of student concerns, felt the forum failed to sufficiently answer students concerns.

“There was not the level of transparency that students wanted,” said Moser.

Harkness said he understands students may have been frustrated by the extent or specificity of responses during the forum.

“I think some people disagree with what has to be confidential, and I respect those disagreements,” he said after the forum.

However, because Title IX investigations are a confidential matter, Harkness said, some questions can be difficult to answer publicly.

“My attempt is to be as transparent as possible while maintaining what I believe to be an ethically and legally required level of confidentiality as it relates to specific situations,” Harkness said.

During the forum, Harkness provided a “high-level overview” of current policies and procedures in cases of sexual misconduct, noting that BW reviews them annually and has updated them within the past two years.

The forum, and the comments online that prompted it, occurred during an ongoing national conversation about sexual assault and misconduct, often by powerful men in a variety of fields, which has made the issue more prevalent.

Harkness indicated that during the Fall 2017 semester he received more sexual misconduct concerns and complaints than in any semester in his nearly 20-year career. Harkness said during the forum he had received last semester a total of 15 allegations of sexual misconduct, including 8 instances of sexual harassment, 5 instances of non-consensual sexual intercourse, and 1 instance of sexual exploitation.

Though the official statistics won’t be available until next Fall, Harkness stressed that crime statistics published by the university do not include all Title IX complaints, as several individuals either choose not to go forward with an investigation or report anonymously without providing enough information to investigate.

The forum panel consisted of Helmer, Harkness, and Kallergis, as well as Dr. Trina Dobberstein, dean of students, and Richard “Dick” Fletcher, senior vice president. Dr. Lauren Copeland, assistant professor of political science, moderated the discussion. Before the forum began, Copeland received approximately 40 submitted questions, some of which she combined and paraphrased to avoid redundancy as she posed them to the panel. The last portion of the forum, dedicated to open questions from forum attendees, was extended so all individuals who wished to speak had the opportunity.

Helmer, who noted that much of the forum was dedicated to answering questions about current policies, procedures, and resources already available to students, said after the forum that the event highlighted communication issues that pervade the campus community.

“It was a reminder that we always have to think about the ways that we communicate to students,” he said.

Helmer said he hopes attendees left the forum with the belief that BW is committed to working towards a solution to the concerns raised at the forum.

“I hope they came away believing that the university does care about their safety,” he said.