Southwestern University Title IX Investigation

By: Clara McMichael

On March 13, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation on Southwestern University regarding a sexual misconduct case.

Two investigations are taking place concurrently on Southwestern. The first one was opened on February 18, 2016.  The two complaints are not linked.

Since Fall 2013, Southwestern has conducted 79 investigations into sexual misconduct. Not all investigations result in a hearing.

Southwestern University President Edward Burger addressed the Southwestern community about the investigation in an email sent on March 16.

“The University is cooperating fully and is actively working to gather all requested materials in a timely manner,” Burger said.

An issue of contention within the Southwestern community was that The Houston Chronicle reported the investigation before the student body had been made aware of it by the Southwestern administration.

According to Vice President for Student Life Jaime Woody, the OCR mailed a letter to Burger dated March 13.  The letter was mailed through UPS, and did not arrive until March 15 – the day after Burger returned from a trip to Washington D.C. with two Southwestern students. Burger’s email to the community was sent within 24 hours of receiving the letter.

“Every Wednesday, we provide upon request, a list of postsecondary institutions under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights for issues related to Title IX sexual violence,” Jim Bradshaw, from the U.S. Department of Education press office, said. “[The list] is not posted online or proactively distributed without a request.”

Southwestern claims that the media received the information before Southwestern received the notification that it was being investigated.

Currently, 228 postsecondary institutions are under investigation by OCR in relation to campus sexual violence under Title IX.

The other Texas universities under investigation are Texas A&M, the University of Texas Health Science Center, the University of Texas – Pan American, Trinity University, the University of Houston and the University of North Texas – Denton.

Southwestern’s investigation was prompted when an individual made a complaint with OCR regarding how Southwestern handled a sexual misconduct case.  The OCR is now investigating Southwestern’s response to the case and whether the university’s response was timely and fair.

On March 20th, Southwestern opened a frequently asked questions web page regarding the investigation.

According to Southwestern, the university was unaware that a complaint had been registered prior to receiving the letter.  

OCR has informed Southwestern that OCR is a “neutral-fact finder” and that the investigation “in no way implies that it has made a determination regarding the merits of the complaint it received.”

The average time for OCR to complete an investigation is under two years.  Investigations have been known to take six years to complete.

The OCR has asked that Southwestern submit the requested information within a period of 30 days. However, Southwestern may seek a short extension from OCR to effectively gather all of the documents and answer OCR’s questions.

“The information sought can be voluminous,” Woody said.

If OCR finds that the complaint is valid, OCR and Southwestern will make an agreement that will result in improvements within the process of handling sexual misconduct.

Southwestern and the OCR cannot disclose any specifics of the investigation, complaint, or original case. However, the FAQ page did say that the incident involved occurred more than a year ago.

Southwestern has been advised by its legal counsel that they should not provide a copy of OCR’s letter to anyone, because it contains information that could potentially identify students involved in the case.

“Although Southwestern does not disclose the specifics of this or any case, we always encourage and value ongoing conversations about our campus climate, and preventing and responding to sexual misconduct,” Burger said in his email to the Southwestern community.

Southwestern has emphasized its commitment to Title IX.

“Southwestern University is steadfast in its commitment to equal opportunity and non-discrimination,” Burger said.

Southwestern has a multi-step process to educate students about sexual misconduct: first-year orientation consists of three hours of programming during which students are trained to understand the definition of sexual misconduct and the affirmative consent policy that Southwestern stands by.  New students also complete an online educational module before coming to campus, consisting of information about sexual misconduct and a questionnaire.

Departments within the university and student organizations conduct programs throughout the year including bystander intervention training, panel discussions, consent campaigns, self-defense courses and alcohol awareness events.

Southwestern has also been developing initiatives regarding sexual misconduct through the Sexual Assault Risk Reduction Committee and other entities.

“A change in any campus’s environment comes when all interested parties work together – in this case to raise awareness of what constitutes sexual misconduct and how we can best express our community’s commitment to end any form of sexual misconduct,” states the FAQ page.

Southwestern created a “Yellow Book” in 2006 as a resource for those who want to know more about the university’s sexual misconduct policy, how to receive confidential help and how to report incidences of sexual misconduct.

“Southwestern is committed to a safe campus community,” Burger said.  “We believe that OCR will recognize that commitment, and if OCR suggests changes to improve still further, those changes will, of course, be implemented.”

Southwestern is confident that OCR’s investigation will find that the university is compliant with Title IX.