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UWRF Student Senate pushes for Title IX compliance and student rights

October 31, 2016

With the promise to focus on student safety and inclusivity for the 2016-2017 academic year, the UW-River Falls Student Senate has set its sights on a new challenge: creating a position at the university centered around student rights.

Student Senate President Chris Morgan said that the Senate is looking for the university to create a position that deals with Title IX, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other student rights. This position is planned to be full-time, independent and tenured.

To do this, Senate is planning on creating a motion that will officially call on Chancellor Dean Van Galen to create such a position.

“It’s all about the students, that’s why we’re doing this,” said Morgan. “We’ve heard the stories; we know what’s at stake. I hope [the administration] does, too. I hope an effort is made.”

Title IX is a federal law that was passed in 1972 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Under Title IX, sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, is a form of sexual discrimination.

Each institution that falls under this law must have a position that enforces Title IX and makes sure that the institution is compliant under the law and coordinate investigations that fall under Title IX, such as sexual assault and discrimination.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the Title IX coordinator should be full-time in order to minimize the risk of a conflict of interest as well as have enough time to fulfill all of the duties under Title IX.

Gregg Heinselman, associate vice chancellor for Student Affairs, Student Senate advisor and the current Title IX coordinator, took over the Title IX responsibilities two years ago when the chief diversity officer resigned and was not replaced. He currently shares the responsibilities with two deputy Title IX coordinators: Thomas Pedersen, director of Student Conduct and Community Standards, and Michelle Drost, director of Human Resources.

With the associate vice chancellor position being full-time, Heinselman said that the amount of time he spends on his various responsibilities “ebbs and flows” from week to week. Some weeks he spends half of his time on Title IX, while other weeks it’s more like 10 hours.

However, Heinselman said that his responsibilities as Title IX coordinator makes up about five to 10 percent of his job, which right now is mainly trying to meet the minimum requirements of Title IX compliance.

Heinselman said that attempting to juggle all of his responsibilities in Student Affairs and Title IX has taken a toll on both of the positions that he currently holds.

“The challenge with Title IX is when there is a Title IX issue, it’s an immediate response that’s needed,” said Heinselman. “There is a clock that begins ticking on reviewing and analyzing the case or responding to an alleged violation. It means that all the other work that you’re supporting, you have to redirect your time and energy to Title IX. And that’s where the challenge lies.”

According to the Department of Education, the Title IX coordinator “should not have other job responsibilities that may create a conflict of interest.” For Heinselman, this serves as a problem, as he oversees many departments in the university that could be directly linked to a Title IX investigation, such as Residence Life and Counseling Services.

Because of his responsibility of oversight as associate vice chancellor of Student Affairs, Heinselman said that he believes that he cannot be seen as independent or neutral when it comes to his Title IX responsibilities.

“In order to provide equity and justice to Title IX, you have to be independent. And that’s difficult to balance,” said Heinselman. “I think I can do that [stay neutral]. It just means that you’re switching multiple hats throughout the day.”

Although Heinselman tries his best to be seen as an independent Title IX coordinator, he recognizes that others, students in particular, may not see him as such. He also said that he recognizes the personal dangers that come with being an advocate for the students while also in an administrative role on campus.

“In my role I still report to the Chancellor and I’m still a member of the [Chancellor’s Cabinet] and I have all these departments that report to me, so can I really be independent?” said Heinselman. “Can I really operate that way when I have a limited appointment, I serve at the luxury of the Chancellor and have a one-year contact? Can I really operate independently and be a Title IX coordinator?”

Heinselman said that he fully supports Senate’s call for a new Title IX position, having even brought a request to the University Budget Committee in the past.

“It’s a difficult road to the Budget Committee to get enough support for a position like that,” said Heinselman.

According to the Department of Education, institutions that are not compliant with Title IX are subject to lawsuits that could cost the institution heavy fines as well as be subject to the loss of federal funding.

“Most of the Title IX coordinators in our institutions in the UW System will tell you if it happens it’s when it happens, because it’s kind of inevitable,” said Heinselman. “I think until we really support the independent aspect of what Title IX calls for, I think the probability at any campus that hasn’t committed the resources, the probability of a violation is moderate to high.”

In an emailed statement, Van Galen said that the university has consulted with Title IX experts in the UW System and has found that the university’s current coordinator/deputy coordinator designations do not violate federal law. However, he said, he recognizes the need to re-evaluate how UWRF is handling Title IX and how it is keeping the campus safe.

“I am interested in understanding student concerns regarding how Title IX is addressed at UWRF, I am open to considering other coordination structures for how Title IX is managed on our campus, and – in the longstanding spirit of collaboration with our student shared governance body – I look forward to learning more about and discussing ideas and requests proposed by Student Senate,” said Van Galen.

Morgan said that a motion will likely be put in front of the Senate in the next two to three weeks.

“If it’s just the administration asking the Chancellor to do this, it won’t happen,” said Morgan. “It will have to be the students themselves, who pay tuition, who pay fees, to say this is what we want at our institution. That’s what’s going to have to happen.”