Our Response to the College's "Statement of Presidential Working Group Progress"
Updated: Feb 29
To the Emerson Community:
Last semester you all received an email with the subject line “Summary of Presidential Working Group Progress.” This email summarized the work of a committee that I sat on formed to address Emerson’s Title IX policy/procedures. Unfortunately, I felt this email did not accurately depict what I experienced in these “working group” meetings. I feel it is necessary to tell you about my experiences in these meetings and the ways I have found them to be frustrating and disappointing.
This is how the working group started, and how it’s flaws have gone unaddressed since its inception:
In the spring of 2019, a group of concerned students, including myself, met with Lee Pelton intending to address the rampant issue of sexual misconduct on Emerson’s campus. In the first meeting, President Pelton proposed the idea of creating a “working group” of students and faculty to talk through the issues we were discussing. While this sounded like a good idea on a surface level, it raised several serious concerns which have to this day never been addressed.
We wanted to know :
1) What measures would be put in place to ensure student’s input would result in changed policies/procedures around sexual misconduct.
2) Would students reviewing these policies be the best use of student’s time and energy? Could appropriate professionals with research based, trauma-informed training be doing this review?
3) Why is a group being formed to review current Title IX policy when there have already been proposed Title IX policy changes in July of 2018? Would the working group be able to see and review those changes?
I still do not believe there has been a clear answer to these questions.
Disclaimer: I was not able to attend every meeting as I am a student who has a job and internship and is not always available on Fridays from 2-4. However, the meetings were not productive when I was present, so I don’t imagine I missed much.
From the beginning of this work, the administration has not shown proper respect for student’s time or very real concerns. In May of last year I scheduled a meeting with Emerson’s legal counsel Christine Hughes. President Pelton then requested to be in this meeting as well. I was offered an hour long meeting in September. I agreed and waited 4 months.
A week before the meeting, President Pelton’s secretary emailed me to cancel:
I am reaching out to you regarding a meeting on President Pelton's calendar for Monday September 23rd at 10:00 am that was set up in May by Bridget Schulz who is no longer with the college. With the establishment of the Task Force and your membership on this group, we are canceling this appointment at this time. Please let me know if you have any questions.”
Since then my only communication with administration has been through the working group. It is important to mention Lee has never attended a working group meeting.
Our first meeting involved the group members assessing their level of knowledge regarding Title IX. It was clear that many in the room had little to no experience with Title IX related issues and it was stated that this would be “a learning experience for many.” There are people on campus who are well versed in Title IX policy who could teach us, if this was truly to be a learning experience. Yet, Emerson’s Title IX Coordinator, Pam White, has never attended a working group meeting. A group set up to learn about Title IX without consulting the Title IX coordinator from the outset feels like a set up for failure, for bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy.
The email you received states:
“Our initial meetings, with experts in the Title IX field, focused on current laws and guidance, confidentiality and privacy guidelines.”
I earnestly do not understand why none of these experts were people from Emerson’s own Title IX office, in a group reviewing Emerson’s specific Title IX policy.
I brought up the fact that there had already been proposed revisions to the sexual misconduct policy in July 2018 and asked why we were starting from scratch instead of looking over those revisions and going from there. I was met with confusion as it was clear that I was the only one in the room aware of those revisions. I was asked to explain what I was talking about. After I was done explaining I was told the co-chairs would look into it but that our focus was not to be on changing policy but to be on the “student experience.” I expressed that the student experience is influenced by policy. I was informed that we could not change the policy.
The idea that we cannot change Emerson’s policy is a lie fed to me by admin multiple times based on misinformation about how the US Department of Education works. I have been told many times by various administrators that the reason Emerson cannot make changes to it’s Title IX policy is because the school is waiting on changes made by the federal government under Betsy DeVos and that it would cause legal problems. I have asked over and over what legal problems it would cause are and have never received a straightforward answer.
After that first meeting, our Secretary, Maggie O’Neil visited President Pelton himself during office hours and asked him about the statement that the working group was to focus on the student experience instead of policy. President Pelton told Maggie he had no idea where this came from and would talk to the group.
Sure enough the next meeting we were talking policy. We had individual meetings with the consultants in which I expressed my extreme frustration with the working group and that I believed its existence was a bone thrown at us by the administration to get us to be quiet, an opportunity for them to say “well we gave you something.” As far as I know my thoughts on the working group were not relayed to anyone else.
The email you received about the working group’s progress at this point states:
“We took part in a mock case study that involved complaints of intimate partner violence and sexual assault on campus. This exercise supported the group’s understanding of the complex nature of Title IX cases, how privacy concerns can affect decision making, and that many individuals besides those mostly directly involved can be impacted and in need of support.”
This case was extremely specific and while theoretically possible seemed fairly unlikely. It turned the issue into a thought experiment rather than tackling the realities of what Emerson students face in a Title IX procedure. The consultants who lead this exercise are specialized in “risk assessment for higher education.” They are concerned with making sure that “schools to meet their compliance obligations while pursuing their missions.” I feel as if they were employed to protect the school rather than students.
The case we looked at involved two women who were in a relationship; Woman #1 physically abused Woman #2 so a Title IX was filed against #1. However Woman #1 claimed that Women #2 had sexually assaulted her and that is why she “beat her up.” so a Title IX was also filed against Woman #2. This left us with a case in which both of them were a Complainant and Respondent at the same time.
The case was convoluted and while I can see how it could point out issues with our policy, it also resulted in a rather concerning idea. Some members of the group proposed the issue we needed to solve was the campus’s lack of support for those accused of sexual assault. It was suggested that what was needed was some kind of safe space for students accused of sexual misconduct. As if that was the problem the working group was established to solve.
I have been a part of the working group since its formation at President Pelton’s request because I wanted to support any effort being put towards addressing this issue. However, I have been greatly disappointed over and over again.
When the email you received last semester went out summarizing this group’s progress, my name was published on it without my expressed permission. At the second to last meeting of the semester I expressed dissatisfaction with the statement. I was told that changes would be made and then I would be asked to physically sign off on it at the following meeting. Then during the middle of finals an email was sent out with less than a 24 hour time window to approve the message otherwise they would put everyone’s name on it regardless. I was not given adequate time to respond with my dissatisfaction and I would like to make it clear now that I do not fully agree with that assessment of the working group’s progress.
I have found in my experiences in this working group and in my interactions with the administration that Lee Pelton and the working group have never addressed my concerns in any serious way. The group is fundamentally flawed. It is not designed to review policy in a meaningful way. It claims in it’s charge to be focused on studying best practices but that goal has not been reflected in the actions this group has taken. This institution understands that students and especially student activists spend a finite amount of time in this institution. This group is designed to filibuster the time of Emerson students who are invested in this issue, outwardly performing action without the goal of any serious inquiry or systemic change.
I am open to working with the administration directly in the future, but I would like this letter to serve as my official resignation from the working group. The working group is welcome to consult with me as President of Student Supporting Survivors (S3) but I will no longer be a formal member. I believe my time is better spent focused on S3 and directly addressing students issues with the system in what I believe to be a more productive manner.
I encourage Emerson students to work with us and to continue to loudly voice your concern about the way Emerson College has historically mishandled Title IX cases. I hope the concern for this issue does not go away when the working group is done and I hope it goes on after I graduate. I believe in Emerson student’s capacity to care for each other and to demand that Emerson ensure a safe environment for them and their classmates to learn and thrive.