HEARTBREAK & HEALING: In interview with FLT, HWS officials say they'll have updated plan in place by Sept. 1

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2014 11:17 am | Updated: 3:07 pm, Mon Jul 21, 2014.

By JIM MILLER jmiller@fltimes.com

GENEVA - Students will see the initial results of Hobart and William Smith’s effort to curb sexual assaults and improve their handling of sexual assault cases by the time classes begin Sept. 1, Colleges President Mark Gearan said Wednesday.

“We want to ensure that when we open in the fall, we have the policies and procedures that are enhanced in the way we want, the training that is necessary both for students and faculty, and the staff,” he said. “It is an aggressive schedule during the course of the summer.”

Gearan and Maureen Zupan, chairwoman of the board of trustees, discussed their plans during a 40-minute joint interview on campus. It was the most extensive statement they had made since Sunday’s New York Times article about the recent sexual assault allegation against three football players who were eventually cleared by an in-house panel.

Gearan and Zupan said the Colleges will make concrete changes to improve their policies even as they defended them against the criticism spurred by the New York Times story. Meanwhile, Zupan said trustees are “unequivocal” in their support for Gearan and his leadership.

The board will continue to discuss sexual assault policy - Zupan said that discussion began long before the story ran and the alleged assault that prompted it - but will leave the implementation to Gearan.

“A big part of the board’s job is always to be advocates for the institution, so that remains,” Zupan said. “We, boards of trustees, shouldn’t be getting into the weeds of who’s doing what on campus. We should be making sure that the right policies and processes are in place and that the right people are in place, meaning the president. When you have who you believe is the right person as president, who’s doing a fabulous job, then you rely on them to pick the good people, which he has done. So our role going forward is to support him in the ways that he needs to accomplish the kinds of things that we’re talking about.”

Campus changes

The Colleges’ list of summer tasks includes a student-initiated rape hotline, a previously announced Title IX office and a review of the process used to investigate sexual assault allegations.

That process - an in-house adjudication panel - came under criticism in the New York Times story from a student identified only as Anna. She believed the panel did not treat her fairly after she reported being raped in September. The newspaper, which obtained transcripts of the hearings, said the panel cleared the accused players before it had the results of Anna’s rape kit and that its chair did not share medical evidence showing trauma with the two other members of the panel.

No criminal charges were filed against the players.

Gearan has declined to discuss the specifics of the case, citing privacy laws. However, he and Zupan said trustees commissioned an independent review of the case by Brett Sokolow, a consulting attorney.

Zupan said Sokolow determined the Colleges acted properly.

“He did report to the campus, but we also had him report to the executive committee of the board in executive session,” Zupan said. “That’s lingo for ‘Mark [Gearan] wasn’t there.’ It was just trustees that he reported to, so that he could assure us that the judgment that this whole process ended up yielding, he fully, fully, strongly endorsed or affirmed.”

Despite that, Gearan and Zupan said the Colleges want to look at bringing in more outside experts to advise future panels. They said those conversations began long before the New York Times story.

“We can always do better, right?” Gearan said. “We take this as an opportunity to continue the journey.”

Asked about potential changes to the adjudication panel’s membership, Gearan said panelists serve on a volunteer basis. That means the panel’s composition can and does change, sometimes on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Although the New York Times story raised questions about members’ qualifications, Gearan said each had received between 30 and 100 hours of training.

Gearan also rejected speculation that the Colleges protect or favor athletes. He said past adjudication panels have punished athletes for a variety of offenses.

A national conversation

The current law requires colleges to use adjudication panels to handle sexual assault cases, which can also be turned over to local police if a victim decides to pursue charges.

Gearan and Zupan say they believe lawmakers need to have a conversation about whether that is the best way to handle assaults. They are not convinced that it is.

“Title IX [a law that bars sex-based discrimination] should not mean that schools are required to adjudicate these cases,” Zupan said. “... It’s one thing to have Title IX talk about having equal access to sports for women, and equal access to educational opportunities, but to have that extended to say that we now become the investigators, the adjudicators, etc., judge and jury for what is charged as a felony ...”

“That’s the conversation we need to have,” Gearan added. “How do we do it? We don’t have the answers. We do have 2,200 students here, so there have to be community standards, but that’s one of the questions: How do we do this right?”

The Colleges hope to begin a national discussion, and Zupan thinks it will draw many other colleges to their side.

“We both have some connections in some important locations at the federal level,” Zupan said. “We committed to having some conversations and pushing an agenda.”

Local repercussions

Conversations already are taking place at the local level. In the days since the New York Times article ran, Gearan has been meeting with trustees, faculty leaders and students, including the Coalition of Concerned Students.

Gearan said a sense of heartbreak comes across clearly in those conversations. He and Zupan said they share that.

“I can’t use any other word, any less-intense word, than heartbreak,” Zupan said. “I think there is also a lot of heartbreak within our community.”

However, Gearan and Zupan said they also have picked up on something else.

“What also comes across is how engaged people are, how they want to make sure that as we go forward, that every student, including the [alleged victim] coming back, comes back to a campus that feels safe and secure,” Gearan said. “And so I take inspiration in that, that people are working and thinking mightily about how do we create the kind of campus climate that we want. We think we have a very good foundation on which to build. We are a college. We are always learning. We can always get better. I think that is also the wave here now.”

That said, they know the New York Times story will have repercussions. Online, alumni are talking. Some are defending the Colleges. But others are venting anger or saying they will take their donations elsewhere.

Gearan and Zupan say the Colleges’ major donors want to make sure HWS has the resources it needs to address the situation.

Zupan also takes heart from other social media posts. When people online say they plan to stop donating, others urge them not to do so, she said.

“The ones who know the place, even if they are angry, are offering ideas,” she said. “They’re not saying we’re disengaging, and the few that might say we’re disengaging are saying, ‘I’m going to instead make sure my money goes to things on campus that can help in this area.’”

Gearan and Zupan believe the steps the Colleges plan to take will reassure graduates. They also believe those steps will reassure prospective students and their parents.

Gearan said the incoming class can feel confident that it is coming to a safe place.

“With the kind of alumni that we have, and the students that we have, and the faculty that we have and the staff that we have, we are going to be better for this,” Zupan said. “It’s a jolt. It’s a jolt that I wish we didn’t have. A young lady has, in a heartbreaking way, had a lot of pain. I am committed that we will be a better institution, and I know Mark [Gearan] is too. ... We are going to get ahead of all the other schools that have these same kinds of problems. We’re going to get ahead of them, and we’re going to set the tone for how schools should react to these kinds of jolts.”



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