An Interview with Robb Flowers, Vice President for Student Affairs
The heightened national focus on sexual misconduct on college campuses has caused many to question the role that colleges and universities play in investigating and adjudicating these cases. The Office of Civil Rights is currently looking at how 60 institutions across the country are handling the enforcement of Title IX, including Hobart and William Smith. This summer with the help of faculty, staff, students, alums and parents, the Colleges are completing an audit of the Colleges’ community standards, including its sexual misconduct policies, with the goal of implementing new organizational and programmatic efforts in the fall semester.
As this work commences, the Daily Update sat down with Robb Flowers, the vice president for student affairs, to talk about the work of his division in this area.
DU: What is the mission of the Division of Student Affairs?
RF: Our mission is to provide an environment in which students can be educated successfully, one that promotes growth and development, and that exposes students to new ideas. At the heart of my group is a desire to create an ethos of caring. We care about students and we want to work with and help students.
DU: How does that mission relate to community standards?
RF: If the Colleges want to promote an environment in which students are able to be successful academically, and one that supports the civic mission of the institution, we must have a capacity to help students through difficult developmental situations. So some parts the community standards are about helping students through challenging decisions, for example, related to the Colleges’ policies about plagiarism or alcohol use. Yet in a very broad and important context, our community standards set forth our obligation to protect our community from violence and harm, and to make it clear that we have no tolerance for violent crime or sexual misconduct.
DU: What kind of educational programs do you run so that students understand that?
RF: We begin every semester with a floor meeting in the residence halls in which the resident assistants have conversations with students about the community standards and the expectations set forth in them. We then have at-large meetings specific to the community standards with our Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs who manages student conduct and the Director of Campus Safety. Both go into the residence halls and offer town meetings and conversations.
Regarding sexual violence and our sexual misconduct policy, we’ve dedicated a 90-minute segment of our new student orientation solely to that topic and all students participate. These sessions are not just about policy, law and procedures; they are also about appropriate expectations and how one can conduct oneself in a manner that is consistent with basic human decency which is what, as an institution, we are about.
During the first six weeks of the first semester, all Hobart and all William Smith students participate in a small group workshop where again they address issues of policy and procedure but more importantly appropriate behavior, decorum, and expectations of the institution. We also have tried many different ways to reach students as they progress beyond that first year. There have been opportunities for institution-wide workshops, institution-wide theatre performances, and institution-wide dialogues around issues of sexual violence. This year we tried an online workshop that we mandated for all students. It was met with mixed reviews but the data shows that it was successful; the overwhelming majority of students indicated that they learned something and that it challenged them to think about their role as individuals, their role as potential bystanders, and their role as potential partners. That’s important.
DU: How do students report sexual misconduct?
RF: We try to provide as wide an array of options for reporting as we possibly can. We don’t want a student to feel as though he or she is not able to report that he or she is a survivor of an act of sexual violence on our campus because he or she doesn’t know to whom to report that. So reports can come from literally every corner of the campus. Reports have come from housekeeping staff, dining hall staff and faculty. But the broadest and most frequent reports come to staff in my division - so campus safety and residential education primarily. Resident assistants receive reports and that kind of peer-to-peer reporting can be very effective. Some have reported directly to my office and to the Deans’ offices.
Three other primary resources are the health center, the counseling center and the Chaplain. Students should know that these options are confidential reporting options. These individuals aren’t going to talk to anyone without the student’s permission to do so. The only time they would be required to breach that confidentiality is if they believe that there is an imminent ongoing threat to the community.
We also offer students the opportunity through the bias incident reporting website to anonymously report instances of sexual violence on our campus. We provide a caveat that if we receive a report and it involves the name of a person who is alleged to have acted in a way that may violate our sexual misconduct policy or may serve to indicate a propensity towards sexual violence, we have an obligation to investigate that to the degree that we can.
If a student wants to make a report, our goal is to work with the student to determine the best course of action that meets that student’s interests while at the same time balances our obligations as an institution to ensure that this is a campus that is free from violence.
DU: When a student makes a report of sexual misconduct, what role do the police play?
RF: Among the first things we present a student is the opportunity to contact the police. I would say that there seems to be an increasing willingness of students to speak with the police. We have worked hard to develop a strong relationship with the Geneva Police Department. We know the officers and sometimes that can make a difference to the student. We can mention by name the officers with whom they may meet, or the name of the district attorney or the advocate in the District Attorney’s Office with whom they may work. Reporting to the police remains the decision of the student. The most important thing the Colleges can do is provide the student with information, options and access. We seek to empower the student who is making the report. If you’re a survivor of sexual violence it is inherent above everything else that we do, to make certain that we are providing the student with every opportunity to have control over the next steps in the process.
DU: On the one hand you want more students to report sexual misconduct but on the other hand you want the instances of violence to go down. Is this hard to measure?
RF: It absolutely is. What is being experienced nationally is that as the number of reports goes up so does awareness. That cannot be a bad thing. As awareness about a specific issue increases it can do nothing except help us and help students understand the severity and the means by which the Colleges will take every step to prevent the action. We must all be cognizant of our responsibilities to one another.
DU: How are student groups involved in this work?
RF: Our Women’s Collective has been active for years around these issues and that is something that is essential, because we know that peer-to-peer education is among the most powerful means by which you can express a message that sexual violence will not be tolerated at the institution. We’ve had, to a varying extent over the past few years, but most recently through the group Hobart for Equality and Respect, a group of men who are interested in trying to work to serve as bystander intervention specialists and to talk to other men about our responsibilities to one another and to the community. Of late, we’ve also seen interest by both student governments at Hobart and William Smith. That is a well-received prospect for us because it means that we are broadening the conversation beyond just those who may have a specific interest in a topic. This is about the dignity and respect of all members of our community.
DU: When was the Title IX Coordinator appointed and what role does this person play?
RF: In September 2013, we appointed our first full time Title IX coordinator. We are especially proud to be a leader in this regard; for example, with all of the resources of Harvard University, they appointed their first Title IX coordinator in March of 2013, just six months before us. The Title IX coordinator guides the process and is an advocate for those who are making reports about sexual violence on campus. The Title IX coordinator’s mission is to ensure that we are fair, equitable and just to all students involved during the investigation and adjudication of sexual misconduct on our campus. We also task our Title IX coordinator with the role of being responsible for prevention education on our campus and significantly expanding or targeting specific populations to assist us in providing more frequent and intentional education as we enhance our prevention efforts going forward.
DU: Why do colleges and universities adjudicate reports of sexual misconduct?
RF: Colleges and universities are required under Title IX to adjudicate reports of sexual misconduct. We have an obligation that is separate and distinct from that of law enforcement to provide an environment where students can be educated free from harassment. All colleges have an obligation to investigate and determine whether or not a violation exists and if it does exist, then the college has an obligation to remedy that situation in a way that prevents the ongoing harassment and that also provides that reporting student with an environment in which he or she can be educated free from that harassment.
DU: Can you explain the process of what happens when a student reports sexual misconduct?
RF: When a student wants to report an instance of a violation of our sexual misconduct policy in a formal context, we begin with a meeting with a member of my staff, most often me or the Title IX Coordinator. During that meeting, we have a conversation in which we explain the process. We ensure that the student has been informed of the obligations that the institution has to the student and the opportunities for support that are available. Support includes medical attention to the student either on campus or the Colleges will pay for off-campus medical attention. We provide the student with access to the Geneva Police Department or the Ontario County District Attorneys’ Office. We provide access to off-campus counseling services, which include Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes, a local rape crisis center. We make certain that students know every on-campus option we have for them, including our counseling center and health center. They are made aware of accommodations for housing and academics. These may changes to meal plans, rides to and from class, or supervision in certain settings if the person believes there is a potential for interaction with someone with whom they desire not to have interactions with. We do all we can to provide all of the support mechanisms necessary to allow the student to continue his or her academic program at the Colleges.
We also talk about what an on-campus adjudication process would like. If a student decides he or she wants to move forward, we bring in a trained attorney who is an investigator to sit down with the student and go through the facts with a goal of creating an understanding of the incident in question that gives the Colleges the necessary foundation for our investigation.
The Colleges then interview any potential witnesses who may have credible information about the incident in question. We begin a process where the person about whom the complaint has been made, or the respondent, is afforded an opportunity to meet with the investigator as well. That investigator will then go through the same process to try to get an understanding of the incident in question and then to get to a point where we have details that give us a better picture of what has happened.
When we believe that there is sufficient information, we move forward to a hearing. Students are afforded an opportunity to consider a panel that would include seven members or three members. Seven member panels include students, faculty and staff along with a sexual grievance officer. The other option includes one faculty member, one staff member, and one sexual grievance officer. We always make the point that we give the option to both parties and whichever party selected the most restrictive group, meaning the smallest group, we honor that party.
During the hearing, the student sits in a room with the three members or the seven members of the panel. Also present is a process adviser. If the student so chooses, he or she can bring a support person. But this is really intended to be a conversation with the panel about what happened so that they can come to a better understanding and make a determination about whether or not they think its more likely than not that a violation of our policy has occurred. They will meet with the complainant, they will meet with the respondent, they will meet with any witnesses whom they deem appropriate. If they believe that they need to, they will go back again and speak with either the respondent or complainant and then they will deliberate. During the deliberation process the panel will decide if it is more likely than not that there has been a violation of our sexual misconduct policy.
If the panel finds a student responsible for violating the sexual misconduct policy, the panel will impose a sanction.Â For violations of the policy which includes nonconsensual sexual intercourse, the sanction is nearly always permanent separation from the Colleges.
DU: What is the single most important thing that you want people to know about this work?
RF: The Colleges take this matter seriously. We have witnessed first-hand the devastation that sexual misconduct can have on an individual and on the Colleges’ community. We will not tolerate those who believe that there is a place in society for behavior of this nature. We simply will not tolerate it.
The Colleges have resources and personnel who care deeply about students and who care deeply about this issue specifically. I tell students at the start of every academic year to find someone with whom they can talk - a faculty member or a staff member. That’s part of the reason why you choose to attend a small, private liberal arts institution, to develop a mentoring relationship with a staff member or a faculty member who will listen to you and push you to the right resources. I think that it’s unique, it’s special, and it’s important for students to understand that we are here for them.