Ever since the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education referred to Montana as a "blueprint for reform" in combatting sexual violence and harassment, a large spectrum of groups and individuals has weighed in on how they believe UM should proceed. Lost in this array of comments and critiques are essential facts about the University of Montana’s agreements and what we actually are doing.
DOJ and OCR made news in early May when two letters of findings and two corresponding resolution agreements were issued. It is those agreements that cover the range of what UM has agreed to. Much of the commentary has focused on one agreement – the DOJ agreement about Title IX.
The most important aspect to understand about that agreement is that UM will write, interpret and apply applicable law. The laws that the University continues to follow respect the rights of our students, faculty and staff. First Amendment and due process rights are constitutionally protected, so whatever UM does must be and will be consistent with those rights. Academic freedom is fundamental to us as a university and will not be abridged.
Despite the concerns about a "blueprint," the provisions in the DOJ agreement are relatively generic. Here are the facts. In early May, UM agreed that it would:
- Revise its policies and procedures related to sex-based harassment. Revisions should ensure that students are informed about where and how to report various types of sex discrimination. The policies and procedures, among other things, should include "accurate definitions of various types of sex discrimination, including sexual harassment and sexual assault that may provide the basis for a complaint pursuant to the University’s grievance procedures."
- Provide notice of the revised policies and procedures, and of the Title IX Coordinator.
- Provide enhanced training and professional development for all employees about the new policies and procedures and sex- based discrimination, and ensure a higher level of training for all employees who play any role in responding to Title IX complaints.
- Develop a system for tracking and reviewing reports and responses to reports of sex-based harassment.
- Develop a resource guide on sex-based harassment that is accessible to students.
- Develop annual climate surveys for students so UM, among other things, can assess their attitudes and knowledge about sex-based harassment; identify how UM can do a better job providing information so they feel comfortable reporting; identify areas for improvement of outreach and prevention efforts.
- Update UM’s program to provide training to students on the new policies and procedures for Title IX complaints, and provide information about anti-discrimination laws and other resources.
The concerns raised as a result of this agreement have been wide-ranging. Some people worry that the University is creating a new definition of sexual harassment that will violate the First Amendment and academic freedom. Others worry that the University is not doing enough to address the problem of sex-based harassment, including violence involving students.
Under the DOJ/OCR agreement about Title IX, we are required to draft policies and procedures for "the prompt and equitable resolution of complaints alleging sex discrimination." The agreement does not require that we write policies and procedures that are inconsistent with constitutional rights. We will not draft a policy that is vague or overbroad or that impinges on academic freedom, and we are vetting our work with outside legal experts.
It also is important to understand that UM is not beginning from scratch. We have had had a Title IX Coordinator for decades and policies and procedures to address complaints of sex-based discrimination. We have had programs for educating employees and students about their rights and responsibilities regarding sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination.
A year before the agreements were announced, UM began to ramp up its efforts in these areas. Our work ranged from the student online tutorial called PETSA, to a partnership with the City of Missoula to make sure students and the broader community knew about the process for criminal reporting and about resources provided by law enforcement.
The University isn’t interested in being a "blueprint" for any group’s agenda. We are an institution that will continue to provide excellent educational opportunities to all students in a safe and dynamic learning environment.