Deconstructing President Chopp’s July 18 email

Our reaction to President Rebecca Chopp’s lengthy July 18 email, titled “Interim Report on the College’s Response to Sexual Misconduct,” is decidedly mixed. Some of the issues President Chopp attempts to address are unique to Swarthmore, while others illustrate alarming trends in higher education as a whole.

As most who are familiar with last semester’s Swarthmore controversies already know, a group of 12 students filed formal complaints with the Department of Education, alleging the College’s mishandling of sexual assault under the Clery Act. As of July 17, federal education officials have opened an investigation into whether the College has engaged in Title IX discrimination. However, just days before students filed under the Clery Act, President Chopp had announced an internal response to the allegations, namely hiring an outside firm to review the College’s policies and launching a so-called Task Force on Sexual Misconduct. President Chopp’s all-student email was a summary of these internal efforts.

According to President Chopp, the hired consulting firm Margolis Heimagesaly & Associates (MHA) has recommended that Swarthmore’s Title IX Coordinator now report directly to the President. This begs the obvious question: To whom was the former Title IX coordinator, Sharmaine Lamar, reporting? Were the overlooked assault cases a product of a confused chain of command? And why does a Kafkaesque position like “Title IX Coordinator” even exist?

President Chopp states that the counselor Patricia Flaherty Fischette will act as interim coordinator while the College undertakes a national search—prompting the obvious conclusion that Ms. Lamar will no longer fill that role. was fired. To be fair, at least some of the assault allegations predate the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) dramatic overhaul of due process rights on college campuses in its April 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter.

The legal problems Swarthmore is now facing are, in part, thanks to the nationwide challenge of interpreting OCR’s mandates. Because Swarthmore, along with virtually all other American colleges and universities, receives federal funding, we are obligated to comply with the OCR’s problematic procedures.

In her email, President Chopp alludes to the termination of former member of the Deans’ Office, Tom Elverson, when she states “[A]fter careful consideration, we have been advised to separate the roles of drug and alcohol counseling and fraternity advising.” This was precisely Mr. Elverson’s former job, before leaving the College earlier this month. We agree that advising the fraternities and alcohol intervention on campus is a clear conflict of interest, but why in the world did we need to hire an expensive outside firm to come to that conclusion?

By our count, there are currently 9 administrators on the President’s Staff and 24 administrators in the Dean of Students Division and Deans Staff. For a liberal arts college of only 1,500 students, that’s quite the bureaucrat-to-student ratio. What are all of those folks in Parrish Hall up to? How efficient are these individual positions and how did so many manage to overlook obvious holes in the way we handle incidents involving sexual assault and alcohol? This administrative apparatus is consistent with what has become an increasingly political and managerial approach to higher education across the country.

We second President Chopp’s call for reviewing the College’s Alcohol and Other Drug policies. Swarthmore has a notoriously hands-off approach when it comes to illicit substances on campus. Usually that would suit our libertarian impulses just fine, but with the College’s sexual assault issues, this policy is in grave need of revision.

Another problem the College should examine is the use of mandatory student fees, on top of regular tuition, that fund events like GenderF**k, where incidents of sexual assault are widely known to have occurred. Last spring’s April 19 email from Alina Wong, director of the Intercultural Center, is a prime example of the party’s problems. The night before GenderF**K, Dean Wong began her campus-wide message by advertising Public Safety’s Emergency Phone Number—in all-caps 24 point font. After several frantic reminders for safety, and in between hysterical reminders to stay hydrated, Wong warned us:

Be conscious of other people’s comfort zones.  Any and all instances of hate speech, sexual misconduct and physical misconduct are completely unacceptable. Individuals who perpetrate these behaviors will be asked to leave (emphasis hers).

We read such a warning—after an open encouragement by a college administrator for her students to be “sex positive”—as a signal that something is terribly wrong with the school’s approach to large scale parties. Lending the College’s prestige, finances, and dining hall to such debauchery is entirely antithetical to this administration’s being serious about ending sexual assault and fostering a healthy campus culture.

Moreover, the party has turned into a “guys wear dresses, girls wear less” event, defeating GenderF**k’s original (albeit questionable) intentions. Richard Sager, the alumnus and gay rights advocate who had historically sponsored the annual gender-subversive party, clearly believed the event had strayed from its original mission when he revoked funds several years ago. We call upon the College to do the same and defund GenderF**k.

We were also disturbed that there is no mention of cooperating with local police in President’s Chopp’s email. Sexual assault is a criminal offense and ought to be investigated by the appropriate criminal authorities. Going forward, students should be encouraged to report serious crimes to the police.

Unlike the College, the police do not have a conflict of interest when it comes to building a case against perpetrators. They are not worried about academic reputation, prestige, or future donations. The police primarily represent and protect the victim, whereas the school has an obligation to represent both the accuser and the accused.

Moreover, the police have the proper forensic tools and training to investigate and ensure that the victim receives prompt medical attention. By not reporting incidents in a timely manner, students make it enormously difficult to establish the perpetrator’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We understand that there are some victims who will make the personal choice not to report to the police; we sympathize with those students and agree that the College’s procedure ought to also address their safety needs. However, it is extremely irresponsible for campus advocacy groups to deemphasize the importance of cooperating with police and gathering physical evidence while, at the same time, criticizing Swarthmore for failing to establish a plausible case against the alleged assailants.

No matter how many deputy Title IX coordinators the College appoints, they simply do not have the authority to lead criminal investigations or trials. Nor should they, as they are not neutral arbiters. They are employed by the College. We are of the opinion that reform efforts should focus on getting colleges less involved in the state and national judicial process and handing that role back over to local and state police, who have the proper legal legitimacy.

Until Swarthmore truly revisits its legal procedures and assumptions in favor of campus freedom, order and responsibility, we expect to be receiving more long and unpleasant administrative emails.

Corrections and Amplifications: A previous version of this article stated that “several female students” filed the initial complaint under the Clery Act. In fact, the number of students was 12, and not all were female. We regret the error.

Furthermore, a previous version of this article implied Sharmaine LaMar, previous Title IX coordinator, was no longer employed by Swarthmore. In fact, she is still director of Equal Opportunity and Assistant Vice President for Risk Management and Legal Affairs. but at the external reviewers’ recommendation, the College has opted to hire a full-time Title IX coordinator.

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9 comments

  1. Correction: you said that “several female students filed formal complaints.” First of all, there were over 20 of us; more than just several. Also, not all of us are women.

    • The sentence refers to the initial filers. We understand there are now more–some of which we understand are not women.

      • Maybe list a correction or clarification in the article? Prominent news sites often do this to great effect.

      • That’s actually not quite right. The initial Clery complaint included 12 students, several of whom are not women. Our Title IX complaint also included 13 students, again, several of whom are not women.

  2. The primary rhetorical tactic here seems to be to erect a facade of argumentative coherence via question marks. The writer, who seems largely ignorant of Title IX (more on that later), uses these question marks to interrogate multiple parties at once, and through interrogating identify them with each other (ironically, this response will also be loaded with question marks, simply because I still do not understand what point the Independent is trying to make). Is this article aimed at Swarthmore administration, feminist activists on campus, or the federal government? Is it aimed at all of them at once?

    Take the first set of questions. “To whom was the former Title IX coordinator, Sharmaine Lamar, reporting? Were the overlooked assault cases a product of a confused chain of command? And why does a Kafkaesque position like ‘Title IX Coordinator’ even exist?” The first two questions are clearly directed towards the administration, and deserve answer. The third question, however, is more puzzling. Federal law mandates the position of Title IX Coordinator. Is the writer ignorant of this, and demanding an answer of the administration? If not, are they challenging the government, and on-campus feminists, on the utility of the position? The writer uses the word “Kafkaesque”; to what are they referring? The responsibilities of the Title IX Coordinator are clearly spelled out here, by the Justice Department: http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/cor/coord/TitleIXQandA.php This website is the first hit on a Google search for “Title IX Coordinator responsibilities.” Since I’m sure any writer would do the due diligence of at minimum googling the topic that they are writing about, I really am left completely befuddled as to what point the Independent is making with this question.

    Perhaps an answer can be found in the writer’s attack on the Office of Civil Rights, which they believe to be assaulting due process in its mandate of a “preponderance of evidence” standard as opposed to a “clear and convincing” standard in sexual misconduct disciplinary procedures. But this would not be quite logical. Barring a repeal of Title IX entirely, the position of Title IX Coordinator would exist independent of whatever evidential standard the disciplinary process used. So, I am left with a few options: the writer thinks the office of Title IX Coordinator is fundamentally unjust and Kafkaesque (which seems absurd; given the Justice Department’s explanation of the positions dutieis, it seems utterly inoffensive), that they think Title IX should be abolished entirely, or that they are shooting in the dark, attempting to find ways to justify their contrarian attitude towards President Chopp’s email.

    The writer then moves on to write, regarding the administrative bureaucracy, “How efficient are these individual positions and how did so many manage to overlook obvious holes in the way we handle incidents involving sexual assault and alcohol? This administrative apparatus is consistent with what has become an increasingly political and managerial approach to higher education across the country.” So, which is it? Are the administrators bunglers incapable of handling sexual assault cases, or are they perpetuating a “political and managerial approach to higher education,” which is, in conjunction with the OCR, trampling the rights of the accused? If it seems like I’m constructing a false dichotomy here, I might be; but that’s only because I actually cannot follow the logic of this article.

    We then move on to the subject of Genderf*ck. Again, I am unable to parse what the writer’s objection is. They find Genderf*ck distasteful and think it should be defunded; fair enough. However, where the argument continues to seem utterly without coherence is in their objection to Dean Wong’s email. What precisely that objection is remains unclear. Is Alina Wong’s emphasis on safety somehow wrong? Is such an emphasis in conjunction with sex-positivity contradictory? Is it the mere existence of large parties that’s a problem? Again, these are not rhetorical questions. I genuinely don’t understand what point is being made.

    Finally, the issue of on-campus disciplinary action vs. criminal proceedings. It is my understanding that Title IX makes it illegal for colleges to mandate criminal reporting, and also mandates a disciplinary process on-campus. Is the writer attacking Title IX? From their tone and choice of words, they seem to be attacking the administration, saying, “they simply do not have the authority to lead criminal investigations or trials” and that they lack “the proper legal legitimacy.” Well, clearly, the College cannot conduct criminal investigations; no one is advocating that they do so. However, as previously stated, they can, and are obligated under Title IX to, conduct disciplinary hearings. This fundamentally makes sense; the writer seems to (again, perhaps not; I really have no clue what the writer intends, because the coherence of the writer’s argument is so thoroughly non-existent) be implying that colleges should have no procedures by which they could expel an alleged rapist.

    I would suggest that the Independent clarify what exactly is being said here, because I sure as hell can’t figure it out.

    • Although I’m sympathetic to the idea of the Swarthmore Independent in general, I have to agree with Bill here; this article didn’t make a ton of sense, and jumped around a lot. I didn’t take away a lot other than vague criticisms of Title IX/bureaucracy/Genderfuck.

  3. Richard Sager never funded Genderfuck. The party used to be called “Sager” because it was held the weekend of the Sager Symposium, not because any of Sager’s money went towards it. (He did withdraw funding from the Symposium, which has since been replaced by the Queer and Trans Conference, because he disagreed with students who wanted to bring speakers who discussed trans issues.) You would do well to check your facts a little more thoroughly if you really want to be taken seriously.

  4. Since the vast majority of these cases end up as a he said/she said situation (no physical evidence/no use of a rape kit etc.),no prosecutor in their right mind would bring these cases in front of a jury.
    Additionally, contrary to what the author implies, those accused actually would receive more protection under a criminal prosecution than a campus run Title IX proceeding under the current state of affairs. First, the accused is afforded the presumption of innocence in a US court proceeding which,particularly since the May 9 OCR/DOJ letter, is no longer the case in campus proceedings. Second, in US courts the accused would have a right to counsel, which is not mandated and often expressly forbidden in campus proceedings. Third, the accused would have a right to cross examine the accuser regarding the allegations in a court of law-not the case in campus proceedings. Fourth, the accused would have the right to introduce exculpatory evidence regarding the allegation which amazingly is routinely denied on many campuses. Fifth, the clear and convincing evidence standard would be used instead of the
    preponderance of the evidence standard.
    Finally, the those that have been harmed by the requirements of the DOJ/OCR mandates (which deny their due process and equal protection rights) are standing up-see cases from Holy Cross, St. Joseph’s and Vassar. I anticipate such cases in response to campus Title ix adjudications will become the norm in the near future.

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