Interim appointment gives professor emerita Linda Smolak a chance to implement sexual misconduct policy and help students.
It was an interesting way to “meet” the new Kenyon president a year after he started — an email, then a phone call asking if I would be interested in the interim Title IX coordinator position. I gave Sean Decatur a strong, quick “yes.”
I have a longstanding interest in concerns about sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender on college campuses (and in general). In the more than 30 years that I taught at Kenyon, my courses included “Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies,” “Psychology of Women” and “Developmental Psychology.” There was always some controversy in covering these issues. Some students and faculty claimed sexual misconduct was not a problem, but the personal experiences I heard from other students strengthened my belief that these were very real, often unresolved, conflicts at colleges in general and Kenyon in particular.
It was those students, the ones who had experienced dating violence, sexual harassment or sexual assault and had no recourse, who were in the front of my mind when I accepted the position. I was genuinely excited about the College’s commitment to Title IX. From my perspective, it had been a long time coming. I was excited to be part of this effort.
I officially started work on October 1, 2014, though I actually was involved in a report starting a few days prior. I should have known then that this wasn’t really going to be a part-time job. In fact, I never expected it to be. But I also didn’t expect it to be considerably more than the full-time position it became. The time commitment required quickly became apparent as the number of complicated reports that needed immediate attention rolled in.
It was clear how much work there was — and is — to be done and how committed Kenyon was — and is — to better processes and, ultimately, resolutions. During the first semester, we handled 33 reports. Another five confidential reports went to the counseling center. Assume that each report involved at least two students (the complainant and the respondent). Both of these students were distressed. Assume that those students each had a roommate affected by the involved person’s tension, lack of sleep, worrying and academic problems. Many of these cases involved multiple witnesses, student sexual misconduct advisors and several friends providing support. It is easy to conclude that more than 10 percent of Kenyon students were impacted by sexual misconduct that first semester.
I think about that number frequently. I really want students to feel safe and comfortable at Kenyon. I know — and I do mean that I know — how hard Kenyon administrators work to make that happen for our students. As a former faculty member who occasionally wondered why there were so many administrators (we used to call them “deanlets” in a disparaging way), I was astounded at the work level. I exchanged emails in the middle of the night and early morning phone calls with many of them, from Dean of Students Hank Toutain and Director of Counseling Services Patrick Gilligan to Jill Engel-Hellman, director of housing and residential life, and Susan Morse, chief of staff. Decatur was always available for phone calls and meetings. I was so impressed by the level of commitment I saw with the College’s new policies.
But despite our best efforts, all of these kids were still impacted by sexual misconduct, some of them severely.
I’ve long believed that prevention is more powerful than remediation. As a psychology professor, one of my research areas has been the prevention of problems in body image and eating. Sexual harassment, sexual assault and dating violence can be addressed by education. And education is what we do best at Kenyon.
I’m optimistic that we can and will do more. In fact, I’m back as a deputy coordinator, working with the new civil rights/Title IX coordinator, Andrea Goldblum. I’m focusing on educational efforts with the faculty. Much of the work this year will emphasize practical information that will be useful in the faculty’s daily responsibilities. The job will be more part time than the interim coordinator position was (really). I am excited to be back.