First and foremost, we want to commend the working group for navigating this personal yet heavily political process with compassion, transparency, and urgency that indicates a willingness to initiate change and a true desire to make St. Olaf College a safer place. As evidenced by the thoughtful 116-page report, the working group has demonstrated a genuine commitment to reforming sexual assault policies at St. Olaf. Although we have reservations about the administration which is charged with accepting these suggestions, we want to reiterate that we are incredibly impressed with the commitment and care to the cause that these particular individuals have displayed.
The working group offered many recommendations that form a basis for a far stronger sexual assault policy at St. Olaf, and which met a good deal of our original demands. We applaud the recommendation to hire a Title IX Case Manager, a full-time paid non-student SARN Coordinator and a Gender and Sexuality Coordinator. These hires would fulfill long-time needs of St. Olaf as an institution, and St. Olaf’s acceptance of this recommendation would demonstrate a willingness to financially back a more inclusive, more supportive administration.
Our hope is that these positions would be filled promptly and that the people hired become fixtures in the St. Olaf community. We are aware that certain campus positions, like the International Student Life Coordinator, had been left unstaffed for months at a time, as referenced in this petition. The position has since been filled and renamed. These positions will actualize their incredibly helpful potential only if they are kept staffed.
We hope that the president accepts the working group’s suggestions to create and fill these positions to meet student needs, and that this acceptance will demonstrate a willingness to fill positions in the future. Other commendable recommendations include the consent and bystander training that would be given to students, the publishing of sexual violence data, and the implementation of an annual, publicly available climate survey.
These thoughtful recommendations grant President David Anderson an excellent opportunity to make our college’s sexual assault policy stronger. We encourage students and alumni to submit input on the policy recommendations, both positive and negative, to the president here.
Having said that, we disagreed with a few prominent recommendations of the working group:
Neglect to Recommend Strict Affirmative Verbal Consent
The working group’s report also determines that a policy of strict affirmative verbal consent “would be problematic and lead to a host of unintended consequences.” The report then moves to address calls for policy change by recommending an emphasis on verbal consent in education and training, as well as providing examples of when consent is given/not given in both verbal and non-verbal form within St. Olaf’s Title IX policy. It is difficult to assess at this time the ramifications of these alterations when the working group has not proposed specific examples.
We find the modest adjustments around affirmative verbal consent lacking, given that we have seen cases in which St. Olaf’s adjudicators determine that firm verbal declarations of non-consent can be overruled by ambiguously defined “overt actions.” The lack of a policy recommendation for affirmative verbal consent leaves open the door for incredibly lenient definitions of what non-verbal consent might look like. It is very important to note that this leniency in the past has made the difference between a rapist being found responsible and a rapist being able to walk away from an investigation without consequence because they were able to justify “she/he seemed to enjoy it” as consent to adjudicators.
These concerns might be mitigated by the working group’s recommendation that a (usually external) professional investigator make the determination around a case. Perhaps these investigators, who typically possess a legal background, would discern well what can qualify as “overt” and mutually understood non-verbal consent.
Jo Beld’s Conflict of Interest
The working group’s report determines that Jo Beld’s position as Vice President of Mission does not conflict with her duties as Title IX Coordinator. The report believes that the VP of Mission’s function in supporting the “mission, vision and institutional effectiveness” of St. Olaf harmonizes with the Title IX Coordinator role. The report cites the college’s Strategic Plan, which includes the prevention of sexual misconduct as evidence of synergy between the two roles.
While some synergy may exist between the two roles and their duties of sexual assault prevention, a clear conflict of interest arises when looking at the way that each role might address sexual assault and amend sexual assault policies.
The Office for Civil Rights recommends that the Title IX Coordinator be given an “appropriate level of authority to oversee the [academic institution]’s compliance with Title IX.” Because the Vice President for Mission has the responsibility to “support the work of the President” the authority required to handle sexual assault is implicated. The job description provided for the Vice President of Mission heavily implies that the position’s primary duties involve supporting the President. As such, these duties are incompatible with the independence and authority required to uphold the standards of Title IX law at St. Olaf.
Irrespective of this apparent conflict of interest, the working group’s support of this dual role affirms the college’s decision to promote a Title IX coordinator from an administrative role rather than hiring a sexual assault professional. President Anderson’s reluctance to hire a person with career-long experience with handling sexual assault for the position fails to acknowledge the important distinction between sexual assault and other issues that college administrators might encounter. Rape is a violent, trauma-inducing crime. Making important decisions about preventing and addressing this crime requires a career-long professional.
The President will have an opportunity to address this oversight by approving the working group’s recommendation of a Title IX Case Manager, and by hiring a sexual assault professional for the position. We strongly encourage any Ole alumni or current students to write in encouraging the President to hire an external sexual assault professional for the Case Manager position.
Furthermore, we found several important issues regarding sexual assault at Olaf which need to be addressed beyond what the working group suggested:
It is difficult to assess the comprehensiveness and clarity of the new or modified definitions (coercion, stalking, incapacitation) when the working group has not offered us these new definitions. We fear that by not proposing definitions and merely suggesting amendations, it will be left up to the college administrators to determine these new definitions- something that has been problematic in the past. Considering that the working group contained sexual assault professionals and 4 lawyers, it is disappointing to not see any proposed definitions.
Fails to Address Cooperation with Law Enforcement
The report makes very little mention of the Northfield Police Department. Federal law requires the College to inform a Title IX complainant of their options for involving campus authorities and law enforcement or not. The report also points to the Office of Civil Rights recommendation that a College enter into a memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement and the local prosecutor’s office to communicate how they can work together on an Title IX complaint that also leads to charges being filed. Concurrent investigations can be a challenge that the report fails to address. St. Olaf, like many other colleges and universities, is hounded by charges that it covered up sexual assaults and discouraged victims from going to the Northfield Police Department. Not addressing the topic of cooperative investigations is a serious oversight by the Working Group.
The Counseling Center is Still Understaffed
One of the many changes we recommended when we met with both the working group and St. Olaf administrators was to assume an active, rather than passive, approach to providing and encouraging students to get the trauma counseling that they may need. The working group attempted to acknowledge this concern by suggesting that the Title IX Case Manager could act as an advocate for victims by coordinating counseling appointments and potentially even walking students to the Boe House (Counseling Center). Additionally, their report recommended 40 hour advocacy training for all confidential counseling resources. These suggestions represent a commitment to more compassionate administration and counseling for survivors of sexual assault, and should be lauded.
However, the Working Group acknowledges that counselors at Boe House are working at capacity, which has been a concern at St. Olaf for years. The working group claims that “crisis appointments are generally available on a daily basis, but that availability is not well known to many students.” What they neglect to mention is that crisis appointments have traditionally only been scheduled for students who admit to having thoughts of self harm to the Boe House prior to the appointment. This represents an incredibly high bar for a student to qualify for a “crisis” appointment. Considering the working group’s eagerness to advocate for the creation of new administrative positions, their failure to suggest that the college properly staff the Boe House comes off as a disappointing oversight.
It is important to note that we have not assessed every suggestion from the working group- either positive or negative- in this post. Rather, we have highlighted the suggestions we found to be the most impactful. We would like to reiterate that the working group did an incredibly thoughtful and admirable job with these recommendations. While we do not agree with each point, they approached their work with a compassion and tact that was desperately needed. We hope that President Anderson is swift to accept and implement these recommendations and will continue to heed outside counsel and listen to student voices in the future.
Despite our admiration for these recommendations, we would like the emphasize that the true judge of the success of any policy changes will be future St. Olaf students.
As always, we and other students and alumni will be carefully watching the college over the course of the following months. If you would like to contact us, you can at firstname.lastname@example.org.