Usually university policies can be written, posted online and left untouched for members of the Duke community to refer to when needed.
But when it comes to sensitive issues such as sexual harassment and other misconduct covered under Duke’s newly revised Title IX policy, something more was needed to ensure that students, staff, faculty and others in the Duke community can understand the nuances of the definitions and have clarity on how the process operates.
That additional step is a new Frequently Asked Questions page, written with feedback from students to ensure that they can get the answers they will need in a situation involving sexual misconduct or bias, said Kimberly Hewitt, vice president for institutional equity.
“The FAQs are intended to explain what is a fairly complex policy and procedures in a way that is understandable,” Hewitt said.
Hewitt said students were instrumental in the development of the FAQ. In fact, it was a series of questions from students reaching out to the Office of Institutional Equity that initiated the effort.
The participating students came from the undergraduate, graduate and professional schools across the university, but all were previously involved in sexual harassment and discrimination work. Some came from Duke Student Government; others are leaders in the Student Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Committee or the Coalition Against Gendered Violence at Duke Law School,
After reading the first draft, the students responded with recommendations that informed the final version.
“When we read the new Duke policies, even as students who are very versed in this subject matter, we were very confused,” the students said in a statement sent to Duke Today. “First, we offered comments on the full policy and focused on the parts that were the most confusing or most concerning to us as advocates. Then, we met with various stakeholders in the administration to talk about our concerns surrounding the content of the policy, the process used to gather input from various stakeholders, and the implementation of the new policy.”
Like Hewitt, the students wanted the FAQ to be a working document that shaped the discussion about harassment and discrimination on campus.
“We hope that members of our community who are responding to our community members in crisis can use this document to encourage complainants and respondents to seek help,” the students said. ”We hope that people in our community who are passionate about helping each other will review these documents before they are actually needed … We hope that it helps everyone understand the subject better, and if someone does read it in the midst of a crisis, we hope that the language is clear enough that they can at least know where to go to seek help without being frightened away from the process.”
The bulk of the FAQ covers changes required to bring Duke’s policies in line with new rules mandated by the Trump Administration’s Department of Education (DOE). These included a narrower definition of sexual harassment, and significant changes to the hearing process of misconduct complaints. As a recipient of federal funding, Duke University is required to comply with these new regulations.
Some of these changes raised student concerns that Duke would step back from some of its procedures on sexual harassment complaints. Hewitt said one purpose of the FAQ is to show that Duke is maintaining its commitment to protecting the Duke community from sexual misconduct. While following the narrower Title IX definitions of sexual misconduct, the new policy continues to offer protections in cases of abusive behavior beyond that covered in the definitions.
“Our goal was to maintain existing good practices while also being compliant where the new regulations would apply,” Hewitt said. “Specifically, Duke is committed to addressing behavior that falls outside of the federal government’s definition of sexual harassment and that is problematic to the community and contrary to Duke values.”
Led by the Office of Institutional Equity, the review of Title IX and sexual harassment policies began last fall. It was done as part of regular review of the policies, but with the knowledge that DOE would in 2020 issue major changes to federal Title IX guidelines.
Hewitt said she thought Duke’s policy revisions applied the new new rules in a way that allowed us to retain as much of our existing practices as possible. “We did not get rid of a lot of good work we had done over the years,” she said. But Hewitt added that “some of the revisions were things we wouldn’t have done had not the Department of Education required them.”
For example, the new policy puts in place a live hearing with cross-examination of the parties and witnesses by advisers with rules more similar to a court trial than the Student Conduct Board hearings previously used in sexual misconduct cases.
But the review also led to organization changes not required by the DOE that Hewitt said would provide the campus with a more coherent set of policies on harassment and discrimination. Previously, Duke had two different policies governing sexual misconduct, and there was a consensus that the university needed a single universal policy.
The result, Hewitt said, was an universal Policy on Prohibited Discrimination, Harassment and Related Misconduct that includes three separate procedures covering Title IX sexual harassment grievances; complaints involving harassment and discrimination involving a student; and those involving a faculty or staff member as a respondent.
“The fact that we have a universal policy now is a good thing,” Hewitt said. “When we did this review, we could have just done what the government wanted us to do, but we instead wanted to do a holistic review that would work best for our needs.”
Hewitt is already getting questions about whether the incoming Biden administration will revise the new Title IX regulations. That’s all guess work, she said, and for now, the new regulations remain the law.
“However, by doing this as an umbrella policy with three different procedures, if any changes are made by the DOE, we can easily modify one or more of the procedures without affecting the other parts,” she said. “And that too is a good thing.