The University of Maryland Senate approved revisions to the university’s policy and procedures on sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct at its meeting Tuesday afternoon.
The revised policy and procedures are now awaiting approval from university President Darryll Pines.
Last May, the Department of Education released new Title IX guidelines that all colleges and universities would have to follow. The guidelines drew widespread condemnation across the University of Maryland community, including from students and administrators, particularly in regards to the provision allowing for the cross-examination of sexual misconduct survivors.
In August, the university released a new interim policy to comply with the federal guidelines — but university community members claimed the interim policy was inadequate, citing vague and unclear language.
Over the academic year, senate committees reviewed the interim policy and procedures to clarify the roles of parties involved in a sexual misconduct case and the resources available to them. The senate’s equity, diversity and inclusion committee reviewed the policy, and the student conduct, faculty affairs and staff affairs committees jointly reviewed the procedures.
The committees then proposed revisions to clarify aspects of the policy and procedures.
The senate’s power to change the policy and procedures was limited, said Sarah Hughes, the body’s senior policy advisor. The body could not change many parts of the federal regulations, such as the cross-examination provision, because doing so could result in the university losing federal funding.
“We can’t put the university at risk in that way,” Hughes said. “So [the committees] really focused their review on trying to find ways to sort of mitigate the challenges that some of those aspects of the regulations bring.”
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Andrea Dragan is the chair of the body’s student conduct committee. The committees reviewing the procedures wanted to ensure the language in the procedures was clear and hoped to “help navigate” the process of a sexual misconduct investigation, Dragan said.
“In my case, being that we were the student conduct committee, really focusing on the fact that it would be something that students could read and have a good grasp on what will this process look like without using too much legal jargon,” Dragan said.
One of the major clarifications involved ensuring that parties know that even if a case doesn’t qualify as a Title IX one — if it takes place outside of the U.S. during study abroad, for example — the university will still investigate it, Hughes said.
“We felt like the way that a reader might interpret it and might make them feel like, ‘Well, my case is just going to get dismissed, nobody’s going to look into it.’ And that’s not the case,” Hughes said.
Another change in the interim guidelines that prompted condemnation was the removal of the standing review committee, which allowed students to help oversee cases that could result in suspension or expulsion.
The guidelines instead shifted the power to oversee cases to an individual hearing officer, who would be able to make the final sanctioning decisions.
William Reed, the chair of the senate’s faculty affairs committee, clarified that “in cases involving tenured faculty, the hearing officer will consult the provost before determining an appropriate sanction,” and the provost may consult with other administrators as well.
The university’s revised policy extended the timeline of the resolution of a complaint from 60 days to 120 days, which Hughes said “sends a negative signal that this is going to be a long and drawn-out process, and there’s concerns that that can have a chilling effect on survivors reporting to the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct.”
Federal regulations do not specify a timeline for when individual universities should resolve complaints. Each institution can determine what timeline would be appropriate, if any, Hughes wrote in an email. Over the summer, this university’s Title IX working group decided an extended timeline of 120 days would be appropriate for the interim policy and procedures.
The committees consulted the Title IX working group when drafting the proposed revisions, Hughes wrote in an email. The group advised against changing the 120-day timeline in part because the new federal regulations added “a lot of complexity” to the investigation process, Hughes added. The committees ultimately decided against recommending a change to the timeline.
“As somebody who’s … involved with sexual misconduct prevention organizations on campus, and an advocate for survivors, I think that seeing 120 days is very disheartening,” said Josie Urrea, a student member of the senate’s student conduct committee. “That’s an extremely long time period to get justice.”
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The committees were also worried about the cross-examination provision “due to the potential for revictimization and retraumatization,” Dragan said. Therefore, they added language “to make it clear that the hearing officer can exclude questions in cross-examination that they think are harassing or repetitive,” Hughes said.
“That will ensure that the hearing officer has control over the cross-examination process and can ensure that the questions that are asked are appropriate and relevant,” Dragan said.
Hughes also said the survivors can ask for a recess during cross-examination.
There’s also an extensive list of supportive measures in the policy for students, including class reassignments and job and housing accommodations if necessary.
Naomi Lichtenstein, the Student Government Association’s director of sexual misconduct prevention, has mixed thoughts about the revised policy and says not much can be done until President Joe Biden’s administration comes out with new regulations. University community members expressed optimism earlier this year that the Biden administration would revitalize Title IX guidelines.
“It’s kind of like the best it’s going to be right now,” Lichtenstein said. “But it’s kind of like, okay, this is what we had to get for right now, but it’s not the end. And we’re still going to push to get changes that are necessary.”
Dragan hopes the university community understands the student conduct committee tried to make the procedures as “survivor-focused as possible.”
“We did the best that we could within the confines that we had,” she said. “We really went into this process thinking about students.”