Title IX: Does It Take a Village, or Just Lack a Leader?

Update: Since this article’s print publication on Feb. 6, 2018, Dr. B. Afeni McNeely Cobham has left her position. She is no longer employed at Connecticut College. Her last day was Feb. 6.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Melissa Pierce’s workload as the reason for her departure, but this reasoning has since been negated. Additionally, the earlier version identified McNeely Cobham’s previous position as maintaining oversight of Unity House, the Womxn’s Center, and the LGBTQIA Center, but these responsibilities were removed from her position prior to her departure from the College.

As Spring 2018 begins, it remains unknown when Conn will get a permanent, full-time Title IX coordinator. Senior Associate Dean of Student Life Sarah Cardwell broke the news in a bullet point of an email titled “Student Handbook Notice”: the temporary role was shifted from Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion John McKnight to Associate Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion B. Afeni McNeely Cobham. The style of the announcement left some students concerned, as Title IX is an essential legislative tool in combating sexual assault and misconduct. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Title IX seems more important than ever, as sexual misconduct continues to be a prominent topic of discussion on college campuses, and yet Conn’s change in coordinator was presented with little warning or emphasis.

Though she was recently appointed to the most pivotal role in the enforcement of Title IX, McNeely Cobham responded to requests for comment on her new title by stating that she is “not prepared to engage in this conversation at this time,” but appreciates the invitation to speak. As both Title IX coordinator and Associate Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, McNeely Cobham will continue to work with complaints of discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, ability, and other aspects of identity. She will no longer oversee Unity House, the Womxn’s Center, and the LGBTQIA center. Additionally, McNeely Cobham will now oversee issues specifically related to Title IX, including sexual harassment and assault. According to McKnight, McNeely Cobham’s role as the Associate Dean of Equity and Inclusion “was already dedicated to looking at our bias response on campus, and it just made sense to have them also think about Title IX complaints because the processes are very similar even if the nature of the complaints are different.”

Some students, however, have concerns about adding Title IX to McNeely Cobham’s existing responsibilities. For Emma Race ’18, this feels like a “way to avoid real structural change,” especially because students had no input in the decision. Race feels that this change and legislation as a whole is “a really big deal.” The College’s decision not to collect student input, when there are students who feel passionately about the issue, gives the impression that “it is being treated like it’s not a big deal, which is hurtful,” she said.

“Title IX itself is so fundamental to the safety and emotional wellbeing [of students], to physical wellbeing, and to legal implications that [can last] a lifetime,” Race added. Title IX’s importance makes the coordinator position highly demanding, and it was found to be too much for a part-time appointment when Melissa Pierce, the College’s previous Title IX coordinator, left the College. The College might then have hired a full-time coordinator, but instead has done the opposite: it appointed several people to share the work. In addition to McNeely Cobham, the team of advocates on campus has expanded to include three additional staff members: C.C. Curtis, Director of Student Wellness and Alcohol/Other Drug Education; Erin Duran, Director of Gender and Sexuality Programs; and Truth Hunter, Director of Race and Ethnicity Programs. These changes were made with the intent of fixing problems of the past.

As the Title IX responsibilities get shifted around, students and administrators continue to disagree on the efficacy of Conn’s Title IX enforcement. McKnight believes that “Connecticut College was [already] doing a really good job with this policy” before the wave of media attention on sexual misconduct and violence began. He gives credit to the Green Dot program as a successful way to educate students, faculty and staff at Conn about sexual misconduct and prevention. He also believes that the response protocol to sexual misconduct on campus takes these allegations very seriously.

Race, by contrast, argues that by neglecting to establish a full-time Title IX coordinator position, “the school is basically showing that they are not treating these claims or the situation with the urgency and critical nature that it deserves.” At Conn and beyond, it remains difficult for victims of sexual assault to come forward with their allegations because historically, they have not been taken seriously. While McKnight feels the appointment of McNeely Cobham is an appropriate solution, showing that the school does in fact take these situations very seriously, Race argues that “conflating [these two positions] is not productive and kind of seems like the goal is about efficiency as opposed to quality.”

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