May 04, 2018

As social movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo have triggered a focus on issues like discrimination and sexual violence, some are wondering how protective policies like Title IX fit in. The Daily Herd recently sat down with Melissa Pierce, WPI’s Title IX coordinator, to find out.

“People tend to think of Title IX only as it relates to athletics and sexual assault,” says Pierce, “but these movements have brought the focus back to the bigger problem of harassment based on gender and sex and have highlighted the need to find a new way to address and remedy it.”

Schools around the nation struggle with these difficult issues, attitudes, and policies, but Pierce says it has to happen. “I think the WPI community welcomes the discussions and the changes that are occurring and will occur,” she says.  

  1. What is Title IX all about?

Title IX is a federal law, enacted as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, that prohibits discrimination based on sex or gender by educational institutions, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship abuse, gender-based stalking, and retaliation. It applies to all public schools and most private schools, and includes K-12, technical and vocational schools, and colleges and universities.

As a private institution, WPI is free to expand upon the federal government’s minimum requirements, and we certainly have. Our new Sexual Misconduct Policy goes beyond the requirements of Title IX, Violence Against Women Act, and other state and federal laws and aspires to foster a more inclusive environment for all, regardless of sex, gender, or sexual orientation.

Everyone in the WPI community is encouraged to read the new Title IX policy.

  1. What is your role as WPI’s Title IX coordinator? How does your background fit this role?

I work across campus to ensure that WPI takes appropriate actions to

• end discrimination based on sex, gender, and sexual orientation,

• prevent the discrimination from re-occurring, and

• remedy the effects of the discrimination.

I ensure that employees and students have trainings, workshops, and other educational opportunities around these issues; that our grievance processes are fair and prompt; that accommodations and interim measures are available to those involved; that we collect and analyze data to determine what systemic changes are needed to address discrimination; and answer any questions or complaints.

I was a prosecutor in New Hampshire for over 10 years. The state motto, “Live Free or Die,” is not just a slogan to sell T-shirts. It is embedded in most state laws, as well as the code of ethics for prosecutors. While people may think of prosecutors as lawyers for the police, I was trained as an officer of the court to seek fairness and justice first, and always ensure that a defendant’s rights are protected. This sense of fairness and transparency is an important part of my role at WPI.

I also worked with a wide variety of people, including those who had experienced significant trauma. I developed communication skills like empathy and active listening to better understand what people are experiencing. I developed skills in analyzing facts in a particular case and identifying patterns in the greater community that I use now to better allocate resources to combat discrimination on campus.

"I think of my role as one of not only oversight for compliance, but also of information and guidance."

  1. What is the most common misperception about Title IX?

Prior to 2011 most people thought of Title IX as the law that required support for women’s athletics. Now people think of it in terms of sexual assault, primarily due to media coverage and changes made to college and university procedures related to sexual assault complaints. In reality, it’s much broader than either of those. It prohibits discrimination in a variety of areas and applies to all students and employees.

And it extends beyond women; all genders are protected. Despite recent changes by the current administration, Title IX still directs schools to combat bullying and harassment of transgender students and employees. Various court cases affirm that gender characteristics and sexual orientation are protected as well. The WPI Sexual Misconduct Policy prohibits discrimination based on sex, gender, and sexual orientation.

  1. What makes Title IX especially important in higher ed settings?

Title IX was created to help remedy the discrimination demonstrated at colleges and universities across the country. Institutions of higher education shape the leaders of tomorrow who will create and maintain industries that are more inclusive and welcoming to all. Title IX, by its design, can work to not only stop discrimination, but remedy the effects.

  1. What does it take to ensure WPI is compliant with, supportive of, and responding effectively to Title IX?

Many, many things, and each member of the community is responsible for complying with Title IX. But, they’re not alone. I think of my role as one of not only oversight for compliance, but also of information and guidance.

We need to ensure first and foremost that discrimination does not play a part in who enters our community either through student admission or faculty or staff hiring. Then, we need to make sure that people are welcome when they are here, and not subject to discrimination, which can happen in countless ways. We all should be aware of unconscious biases and work to keep them in check, and that we make decisions based on individuals and not group identities. We can all speak up when we see discrimination or harassment occurring. Anyone, aside from confidential employees, can and should make reports when they learn of any violation of the Sexual Misconduct Policy.

When someone makes a report, we treat it seriously. I, or a Deputy Title IX Coordinator, offer to meet with every individual who reports experiencing a possible Title IX violation. We make sure they understand their options and facilitate appropriate accommodations to help them get back on track as soon as possible. If the person wishes to pursue a formal complaint, an investigator trained in investigating civil rights violations helps determine what occurred.

Reporting an incident doesn’t necessarily mean that anything formal happens. But, it does mean that we can check in with and help the person who may have experienced something.

  1. Can you tell me about employees being mandated reporters? Are students under an obligation to report?

All employees, except those designated as confidential employees, must report anything they hear about students. Supervisors are also required to report any violations involving employees they supervise. Students, for the most part, do not have a duty to report, unless they hold a position like community advisor or resident advisor. But, we do encourage students and employees to report any incident they learn about. Anyone on campus can also file an anonymous report if they have a concern.

  1. What makes you so passionate about Title IX?

My grandmother was a real inspiration to me, as is my mother. When I think about the opportunities that I have had, as someone who has never known a time before Title IX, I am humbled. But, I also look to the future my daughter will have and marvel at how much further our society may travel toward gender equity. Or, to put it more plainly, I spent the first three years of my daughter’s life getting her ready for the world. Now, I relish spending time getting the world ready for her.

- By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil