Content Warning: Sexual violence and harassment
Nationwide, higher education institutions are navigating a period of uncertainty around the laws that govern our responses to sexual harassment, which includes sexual violence. Understandably, the UC community is concerned. As the UC systemwide Title IX coordinator, I want to allay any confusion or fears. I write to explain how some recent developments affect the UC system, including proposed federal regulations, California case law and how we are responding. I also want to underscore the UC system’s unwavering commitment to a fair resolution process that treats parties with respect and compassion and also results in just outcomes.
The U.S. Department of Education proposed new Title IX rules in November that would dictate how schools respond to sexual harassment complaints. The UC system 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, the university will respond thoughtfully, with the security and well-being of our students and the broader community as our highest priorities.
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 in which the respondent is a student, sanctions are potentially severe, and credibility is a central issue. The UC system 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 the university’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 in order to make the experience less intimidating. The courts have signified that 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 will help 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 Center for Student Conduct professionals on your campus care deeply and are committed to getting the student adjudication process right. Additionally, UC Berkeley’s Path to CARE Center is dedicated to supporting individuals who have experienced sexual misconduct, and the Respondent Services office within the campus Center for Support and Intervention 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. The UC system has made tremendous headway in 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. The university 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.
Suzanne Taylor is the interim systemwide Title IX coordinator in the UC Office of the President.
A previous version of the headline accompanying this op-ed may have implied that the UC system will maintain the existing Title IX processes no matter what. In fact, while the UC system has no intention of adopting proposed changes to Title IX processes that may harm students, it may have to abide by new regulations if it is legally required to do so.