Nationwide, higher education institutions are navigating a period of uncertainty around the laws that govern our response to sexual harassment, which includes sexual violence. Understandably, the UC community is concerned. As UC’s Systemwide Title IX Director, I want to allay any confusion or fear. I write to explain how some recent developments affect UC, including proposed federal regulations and California case law, and how we are responding. I also want to underscore UC’s unwavering commitment to a fair resolution process that treats parties with respect and compassion, and results in just outcomes.
The U.S. Department of Education proposed new Title IX rules last November that would dictate how schools respond to sexual harassment complaints. UC has taken a strong stance against parts of the rules. We do not yet know when the department will issue them, or what they will ultimately require. Still, their very prospect leaves many worried. As an attorney who dedicated more than a decade to the department’s Office for Civil Rights, I am troubled too. Please know that when the department eventually issues the rules, UC will respond thoughtfully, with the security and well-being of our students and the broader community as our highest priority.
Developments at the state level are more pressing. In January, an appellate court ruled that California colleges and universities must hold hearings to resolve sexual misconduct cases where the respondent is a student, sanctions are potentially severe and credibility is a central issue. UC had to take immediate steps to comply, and did so with the goal of protecting both parties and the integrity of the process. Specifically, we issued an interim Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Student Adjudication Framework that gives both complainants and respondents the right to an appeal with a hearing for any reason, in any case that results in suspension or dismissal.
Importantly, the court ruling does not require cross-examination by parties’ representatives — a provision in the Department of Education’s proposed Title IX rules that is particularly troubling. In UC’s appeal hearings, a neutral person poses questions, and will exclude questions deemed harassing, irrelevant or repetitive. Additionally, parties may be visually or physically separated from each other and have support persons present, to make the experience less intimidating. The courts have signified these protections are acceptable, and we will continue to provide them. To be clear, we have no intention of adopting those aspects of the proposed Title IX rules that we believe would be harmful, unless and until we are absolutely legally required to do so.
While the interim policy is in place, a workgroup with diverse, systemwide representation has been helping to develop a long-term approach to hearings that is both legally compliant and true to our values. The university also will ensure that our informal resolution process is as robust and meaningful as possible for those who prefer this alternative to a hearing.
I want to assure you that the Title IX and student conduct professionals on your campus care deeply and are committed to getting the student adjudication process right. Additionally, your campus’s CARE office is dedicated to supporting individuals who have experienced sexual misconduct, and the Respondent Services office is equally committed to assisting respondents going through the Title IX process. I encourage you to draw on these resources to understand the recent interim policy changes and how they might affect you.
Combatting sexual harassment and fostering a culture of respect and accountability require an unshakable commitment, particularly in the face of change and uncertainty. UC has made tremendous headway the past few years, and we will not allow obstacles to halt our trajectory. A fair process is critical — yet of little value unless members of our community harmed by sexual misconduct continue to come forward. UC must hold the values of fairness and humanity equally close as we confront these issues. In this challenging time, our commitment to this work and to the UC community is steadfast and as strong as ever.