A&M-Commerce Adopts Anti-Male Sexual Misconduct Policy
Recording here: Interview, Title IX Coordinator Michele Vieira
On April 4, 2011, the Department of Education’s Office on Civil Rights (OCR) issued the “Dear Colleague” letter, which contains guidelines that eviscerate the due process rights of men and boys accused of sexual misconduct, to colleges and universities across the United States . Most egregiously, the directive mandates that schools adopt the “preponderance of evidence” standard in adjudicating complaints, lowering the standard to convict the accused (an act which leads to expulsion, a permanent career-destroying black mark on their record, as well as ostracism from one’s community) to a likelihood of 50.01% – or “slightly more likely than not” – that the alleged conduct occurred.
In addition, it allows accusers to appeal the findings of the hearing, in effect allowing them to make double jeopardy accusations. Unlike most policies established in a civil society, the directive was issued in the still of the night, with no chance for public examination or debate. And to back it up, Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary of the OCR, threatened schools with loss of funding if they fail to adequately address complaints by the OCR’s standards .
Controversy arose as universities scrambled to comply with the directive. Law Professor Cynthia Bowman of Cornell University remarked, “To impose those consequences on someone requires a rigorous standard of proof and many due process protections to ensure fairness. Indeed, there is general agreement among faculty at the Law School that the procedures being proposed are Orwellian .” Former Department of Education attorney Hans Bader remarked, “Innocent people get found guilty of harassment because the school realizes the only way it can avoid liability is to punish everybody in sight.”
Even Brett Sokolow, founder of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management (NCHERM) said, “It’s such a fear-based reaction that a lot of colleges now are expelling and suspending people they shouldn’t, for fear they’ll get nailed on Title IX .” Organizations like The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education , Stop Abusive and Violent Environments , The American Association of University Professors , and numerous others, including A Voice for Men  and Community of the Wrongly Accused , have all sharply criticized the directive and called for it to be rescinded. They have been met with a wall of silence.
While we continue to advocate for the civil rights of the wrongly accused in education, in the meantime men and boys – especially the students – are vulnerable. In addition to the great work being done to raise awareness of the directive, I believe we must also work creatively to provide influence that helps protect them right now. In the spirit of thinking globally and acting locally, in April of 2012 I met with the Title IX Coordinator Michele Vieira and the Assistant Dean of Students Robert Dotson at my alma mater A&M-Commerce, where I had studied for both my bachelor’s and master’s and taught freshman composition and argumentation, but had suddenly dropped out of the master’s program without public explanation two and a half years ago.
My goal in the meetings was not to argue or debate, but to ask for clarification on university policy, and ask them to adopt the model used Princeton University (which Russlynn Ali indicated she “wasn’t necessarily opposed to” ), which uses a higher “clear and convincing” standard for adjudicating complaints, but allows for a parallel process using the preponderance standard for support services. I knew, however, that we do not have the luxury of underestimating the entrenched interests that perpetuate the inequities facing men and boys in education, nor would those barriers be overcome by mere asking. And that is exactly why I recorded the entire conversation with Michelle Vieira, in the hopes that it may be a resource for the wrongly accused, as well as those who advocate in their behalf.
I will speak briefly of my meeting with Robert Dotson, if only for the fact that I am unable to provide a recording of it, that many of his answers were the same as Michelle’s (and many others were nebulous responses), and that little else is eventful in our conversation. Most importantly, he clarified that many universities were already unofficially using the preponderance standard before the directive, and that the numbers in the campus crime reports reference the number of “proven” assaults rather than complaints (which would have included wrongful accusations).
At the end of our meeting, I asked him to adopt the sexual misconduct model used by Princeton. While he encouraged me to send him an email about it, he ended our conversation by literally saying, “I don’t know – I’m a preponderance kind of guy. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” I knew immediately from that statement that it would be no further use to speak with him on the matter. When it comes to adjudicating accusations of rape, I don’t see myself as a preponderance kind of guy. On the contrary, I see myself as more of a due process kind of guy. And regardless, nothing could be achieved without the Title IX Coordinator, anyway.
Given that our mission is equality and justice for men and boys, it is the meeting with the Title IX Coordinator (Title IX of course being a law on gender equity in education) that most directly concerns us. Given that we not only cover some basics, but that she also makes several statements that should be alarming to the uninitiated, I encourage everyone to listen to the full interview.
One of my concerns was clarification over the university’s definition of sexual assault, given that I have heard many definitions advocated which would classify myself as a victim (which I do not believe I was). I have, for example, had sex when I didn’t want, but went along with it to please my partner (to which she answered “no”), after drinking alcohol moderately (“no” again), and after I was asked repeatedly (to which she answered “possibly”). It bears mention, however, that it doesn’t matter what the university’s definition of rape is if the standard of evidence is so low that it requires no evidence at all. “Really, when you boil it down to it, it’s who can tell the best story,” she said.
But should that really be the case, especially when the standard of evidence is little more than a coin toss? It is well known that even innocent persons may embellish or lie in their statements, usually out of fear, uncertainty, or to cover up something else. The reality is that if administrators happen to catch two out of three embellishments by an innocent student but only one out of three made by his accuser, the student wrongly accused student a very high chance of being found “guilty” and having his life destroyed.
Another concern was that the figure cited from a Justice Department report by Russlynn Ali that 1 in 5 college women are victims of attempted or completed sexual assault  is being used as a justification for the draconian measures she proposes. While the disclaimer that it is not an official document is stamped on every page of the report, Michelle Vieira agreed with the figure. What she perhaps does not realize is that the definitions of sexual assault to which she earlier responded “no” are often the very definitions used by ideologically-driven researchers in their tabulations of campus sex-assault victims to reach their 1-in-X figures.
Dissenting Feminist professor Christina Hoff-Sommers deconstructed the infamous 1-in-4 study by Mary Koss, wherein a quarter of the women classified as victims did not themselves think they had been raped, and 42% of the “victims” went on to have sex with their “attackers” again . In the article “The Campus Rape Myth,” Heather McDonald reports that in a similar study, 65% of the “victims” “did not think that their experiences were ‘serious enough to report’” and “generally did not state that their victimization resulted in physical or emotional injuries .”
The 1-in-X statistics do not match up with campus crime reports. For example, A&M-Commerce crime statistics report an average of one sexual assault a year . But somehow we jump from that number to one thousand. Even factoring in under reporting (a reasonable concern), the numbers just don’t add up. And even if they did, what does that say about the administration? Shortly after the interview, A&M-Commerce closed down Binnion Hall because of a water leak .
If the administration truly believed that there is an epidemic of rape which would translate to roughly 3 rapes each day (and in turn justify the evisceration of due process rights), wouldn’t it make sense to advocate closing down the campus – or at least the dorms – until the problem is resolved? Or is a water leak more important?
My next concern was false accusations, which she answered of her own initiative:
We have had occasion for someone to accuse someone of sexual harassment or assault and we find that they were just mad because they got a D in the class. And they go through a nightmare while we do the investigation. And the sad part is, the person who did the accusing didn’t even get a slap on the wrist. They just walked away. We don’t have anything in place in this university to address false accusations.
This is one of the main reasons I dropped out of the master’s program at A&M-Commerce and abandoned my dream of becoming a professor of English. Why should I spend another 5-7 years finishing my masters and getting my doctorate, put myself in tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, subject myself to the brutal job competition in an age when the supply of teachers is high, the demand low and tenure is being phased out -when academia affords me no such protection?
I was a master’s student who loved to learn and a teacher who loved to teach, the president and treasurer of the campus English honor’s society, a member of the editorial board for the campus creative arts journal, and a frequenter of symposia and many campus events. I was well-liked and respected by faculty, students, and peers. In short, academia had become my life, and life was good. But when I saw what was happening behind the scenes, and the “go along to get along” culture that failed to speak out, I decided that I didn’t want to be a part of it. When the April 4 Directive hit and administrators across the U.S. chose to cave in rather than challenge it, I knew I had made the right choice.
In her book Heterophobia, dissenting Feminist and former Women’s Studies professor Daphne Patai documents cases where administrators use the weight of Title IX to justify denying due process to even tenured faculty accused of sexual misconduct . East Georgia College fired Thomas Thibeault for questioning the fact that the college’s sexual harassment policy provides no protection from false accusations . Similar cases abound.
In academia, indifference toward the needs of the wrongly accused is pervasive. Michelle Vieira admits as much, saying “we find that, in discussing it with lots of other universities and colleges, as well as even in secondary school systems, they don’t have anything to respond to false accusations either.” It should go without saying that men and boys deserve better.
Ironically, she does mention that the university did move to protect a teacher – not an innocent one, but a professor who exhibited harassing behavior that was recorded and uploaded to YouTube.
A student recorded it and put it up there. We’ve taken it down five times now.
I didn’t probe too much into it, but I am curious: what if others had experienced harassing behavior from that professor who would only have come forward if they knew others who had the same experience? If parents knew their child had been in that professor’s class, wouldn’t it be good for them to know so they could ask their child if he or she had experienced something similar? If under reporting is such a problem, and if the professor is truly guilty, why suppress awareness of harassing behavior?
But perhaps the most telling part of our meeting was when I asked her, “Aside from regulations, speaking from your own perspective, do you think the preponderance standard is justified?” At this she winced slightly, and exhaled a “whew,” as if to say “that’s a tough one.” Instead of answering, she averted her eyes from me and looked down at her desk. What followed was 20 seconds of dead silence -a silence that was perhaps more revealing than any words she could have spoken – after which she said “I don’t think I can fully state exactly what my opinion is on that.”
At the end of our meeting, I asked that the university adopt the “clear and convincing” standard after the manner of Princeton University, a request I drafted in writing and sent to Ms. Vieira, who forwarded it (as she told me) to her boss Dr. Edward Romero, the president of diversity at A&M-Commerce, and Dr. Joni Baker, the director of diversity for the entire A&M system. You can see these, and other relevant emails, on my blog . After waiting for a while for a reply, I emailed Dr. Baker, asking to meet and discuss the nature of my request.
After receiving no response (something tells me I would have if I were a representative of the AAUW), I sent an email to Ms. Vieira, wishing her a pleasant summer and asking in kind terms to meet one last time. It was my hope that we could work together to solve the civil rights issues facing the wrongly accused. As an alumnus, I could say things that would be difficult for her to say, and we could use the story of my dropping out, combined with the pressing crisis of educational underachievement among male students, to demonstrate that the time had come to make a change.
The wisdom passed down to us from generations of civil rights activism, of course, is that we never need permission to stand up for civil rights. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” The same holds true for all codes, customs, policies, and directives. But unfortunately, my request was met with silence, under the apparent presumption that the matter will go away.
That was a mistake.
There is a lesson I hope we MRAs take from this as we move from our studies and openly advocate equality for men and boys. You’ll hear in the interview that it wasn’t hard for me to talk to Ms. Vieira. Her demeanor was kind, and we exchanged many laughs despite the seriousness of the topic. But there is a line that is drawn in the sand between the needs of men and boys, and the policies and functionaries which put them at a disadvantage.
Given that my current specialization is education, I have my own due diligence obligations toward investigating and deconstructing the barriers that deny an equitable education to our sons. We have learned through painful experience that if we have to wait for it to become politically convenient for education administrators to break ranks and take a public stand for the civil rights of men and boys, it will never happen. We no longer have time to wait on them, nor reason to assume things will work themselves out on their own. And what administrators must come to terms with is that this situation is none of our doing.
Now everyone will be able to hear the Title IX Coordinator’s silence, her reservation, and finally her inability to bring herself to answer me in the affirmative when I asked her “is this policy justified?” Prospective and current teachers will hear that A&M-Commerce has nothing in place to protect them from false accusations. Parents will hear that the administration has a history of suppressing awareness of professors harassing students. And the wrongly accused will be given links to resources that aid them in a fight that is surely stacked against them .
While attending a required sexual harassment seminar as an instructor at A&M-Commerce, I was given the litmus test for avoiding behavior that could be construed as harassment: if you have to ask whether a form of conduct is objectionable, you probably should not do it. A similar litmus test can be applied to administrators who employ or enforce low standards of evidence to find students and teachers guilty of sexual assault: if you cannot look in the eye someone who has been a student and instructor at your university for over eight years and tell him what you are doing is justified, you probably should not be doing it.
 Patai, Daphne. Heterophobia, page 89.