Handling of sexual harassment cases criticized by US Department of Justice
On October 17, 2016, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and the University of New Mexico (UNM) reached an agreement to refine UNM’s policies concerning sexual harassment and misconduct on campus. The agreement was the result of a process started by a letter DOJ sent to UNM on April 22, 2016, which criticized the university’s handling of sexual harassment cases.
Robert G. Frank is the former president of UNM. His contract expired on May 31, 2017. He had announced prior to DOJ’s letter that he would not be seeking another term as president. When Frank received the letter, he initially defended UNM, according to a university statement. He pointed out that UNM was not alone in facing the issue of sexual assault on campus, and that DOJ provided an “incomplete and inaccurate” representation of the situation at the university. However, Frank also stated that despite what he perceived to be inaccuracies, the UNM took the letter “in a spirit of cooperation,” and that the university “[pledged] to continue our campus wide improvements to combat this complex issue.”
Chaouki Abdullah became the interim president of UNM on June 1, 2017, shifting into the role from his previous position as provost there. He said his priority in that role would be “calming the campus community and preparing it for its next president,” reported the Albuquerque Journal in an interview from December 2016.
On December 5, 2014, DOJ began an investigation into UNM’s response to student allegations of sexual assault. It was the second time DOJ investigated a university’s policies regarding such allegations. The first began in May 2012, when DOJ performed a year-long inquiry into the University of Montana. That probe concluded with the announcement of an agreement between the University of Montana and DOJ to change the university’s policies.
Albuquerque Journal reports that the investigation into UNM began due to “multiple complaints” from students concerning how the university handled sexual assault cases. The investigation was conducted under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance.
During its probe, DOJ found that students, administrators, and faculty at UNM “lacked basic understanding” about reporting processes and protocols and that there were “significant gaps” in the response to allegations of sexual assault on campus. DOJ also critiqued a specific UNM policy stipulating that “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature does not constitute sexual harassment until it causes a hostile environment or unless it is quid pro quo,” reports The Washington Post.
Upon completing its investigation, DOJ prescribed a list of policy changes required for UNM to comply fully with Title IX. The list included training for students and faculty concerning UNM’s policy on sexual harassment, along with information and assistance on how to report violations. It also advised UNM to revise its policies “to provide a grievance procedure that ensures prompt and equitable resolution of sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations,” and to “take prompt and effective steps to eliminate a hostile environment…”
On October 17, 2016, DOJ and UNM announced they had reached an agreement to improve the university’s handling of sexual assault allegations. A change in policy as to what constitutes sexual assault is also underway, as is refining the university’s procedures for providing impartial investigations into any allegations of sexual assault and for conducting regular campus climate surveys, according to a report from UNM’s compliance office.
Agreement Reached Between the UNM and DOJ
The agreement is intended to change UNM’s procedures for investigating sexual assault claims, conducting regular campus climate surveys, and organizing training for faculty, staff, and students about the handling of sexual assault cases. The developments were to take place over the course of three years, at an estimated cost $1.5 million to put the infrastructure, staff, and resources in place.
Prepared by Graham Piro ‘18
October 11, 2017