From April 25
On Friday morning the Department of Justice revealed their findings regarding UNM’s handling of sexual assault causes, saying the University is not up to code because of confusing policies and outdated procedures.
But at a press conference later that day, University officials emphasized that there is more to the issue than the DOJ report suggests.
Informational posters were set up in the room, illustrating a timeline spanning the past three years and a checklist of key tasks that arose out of a University commissioned report in February of last year.
UNM officials sought to visualize the actions undertaken by UNM in response to the campus sexual assault issue.
“We hope that you’ll keep that in mind when you report what the DOJ findings were,” UNM spokesperson Dianne Anderson said.
Anderson said the University had just received the report a few hours before, at the same time it was made public.
University President Bob Frank said his staff hadn’t had adequate time to digest the report in full, in light of receiving the report on short notice.
“We believe that we can always improve how the University responds to issues that appear on our campus,” he said. “And we continuously work to improve our processes so that they’re fair and equitable to all parties. This is a very challenging process, and we work continuously to improve it.”
Frank said the University is appreciative of any impact the DOJ report has in improving the equity and fairness of these processes, but said he doubted there was any tangible benefits in the report’s results. He specifically pointed to when the University commissioned an outside firm to evaluate the University’s practices and policies, saying the results from that report closely parallel the DOJ’s findings.
“Prior to (the DOJ) arriving, we had commissioned our own report, done by Jill Pilgrim and her team, to look at our University,” he said. “Unfortunately, our first review of the report did not provide anything beyond what the Pilgrim team provided us, so we are not encouraged that this report has enhanced our knowledge of our campus.”
Frank said a more comprehensive, long-term study that follows campus activity over time would be more effective than the smaller-scale approach taken by the DOJ.
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“We don’t believe the report represents the very intense efforts that (UNM) has undertaken to improve our processes, to improve the way that we have looked out for the safety and the processes to help our students who engage in adverse events on this campus,” he said. “We don’t believe the report is realistic in its expectations of how you engage with individuals who encounter assault or sexual harassment.”
The University’s strongest objection is to the investigation’s conclusion that UNM is a hostile environment, Frank said, noting the fine print within the report.
“You’ll note that (the DOJ’s) definition of a hostile environment is that one event happens on that campus. By that definition, virtually every university in America is a hostile campus,” he said.
Frank went on to say the report doesn’t perform its due diligence as it’s based on anecdotal data more than fact.
“We think that it’s totally unrealistic,” he said.
According to the DOJ report, students are generally confused in regard to taking action in the wake of being sexually harassed, and they lack confidence in the University’s capacity to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct.
The investigation found that the means by which UNM handles reports of sexual harassment made by students – including sexual assault – fail to comply with federal law.
The report also cites that University students, staff and faculty believe UNM acts with “indifference” in regards to addressing situations that may result in sexual assault. Interviews with University officials, the report states, showed that UNM places blame on victims, “reflecting a significant lack of understanding about the dynamics of a sexual assault”.
“Many students described their perception, based on these skits (warning of situations resulting in sexual harassment), that UNM’s focus was not on condemning sexual assault, but on blaming women for putting themselves in dangerous situations by choosing to drink alcohol,” the report states. “Such messaging can lead to self-blaming by students who may have been sexually assaulted, as well as reluctance to report out of fear of discipline for underage drinking.”
The DOJ also found that students felt uncomfortable and unwilling to report sexual harassment because of a “lack of response by the University”.
Frank said the means by which the DOJ conducted its investigation resulted in a skewed outcome which brings individuals to “different conclusions”.
The DOJ began its investigation in December of 2014 after receiving several complaints from UNM students. The department conducted an interview-based investigation and made note in its report of UNM’s willingness to cooperate from the outset.
The report also cited the University’s failure to properly educate the campus community, including the UNM Police Department, in terms of preventing and dealing with sexual misconduct.
“UNMPD officers, including some in command, exhibited a lack of understanding regarding the issues surrounding sexual, domestic and dating violence through their lack of familiarity with the parameters established by the FBI and International Association of Chiefs of Police,” the report stated.
Frank said the University has taken several steps to address this issue both within and outside the timeline of the investigation, and that the report’s failure to recognize these efforts is “disheartening”. The report does not give organizations such as UNMPD and the UNM Office of Equal Opportunity the credit they deserve, he said.
“We know that they have undertaken many changes in their practices and their efforts,” Frank said. “Like everybody that works anywhere, we can always do better, and they’re working hard to do better.”
The following Wednesday, Frank issued a formal response, in regards to the DOJ’s findings, campus-wide via e-mail.
“It appears my response to the recent report by the Department of Justice (DOJ) has created some confusion and misunderstanding,” Frank said. “I want to assure every individual at UNM who has been affected by sexual violence that I am sincerely concerned about their experiences and deeply committed to doing all we can to eradicate this problem. We all agree that this is a very serious issue.”
Frank said he is grateful for the UNM community’s commitment to the shared mission of eradicating sexual violence as well as addressing its impacts in a meaningful way.
He appreciates the work of all faculty, staff, and students, he said, who have contributed to improving the climate and safety of UNM campus.
Frank went on to recap a few of the various efforts he has directed to be undertaken in the past three years, explaining that many of these efforts were started prior to any foreknowledge of a DOJ.
These efforts included: a Sexual Assault Response Team, created summer 2013, “to offer a multi-dimensional approach to victims,” in particular, the option of conducting a criminal and/or university investigation in addition to medical aid and counseling.
Frank mentioned the Presidential Task Force, started summer 2014, to put practices in place and resulted in the following actions, among others: the LoboRESPECT website, campus-wide steering committee, Purchase and implementation of the safety app LoboGuardian and the commission of an external review of UNM’s campus climate, which interviewed the UNM community and reviewed policies and procedures.
Frank went on to summarize the DOJ investigation and response.
“We cooperated fully with their requests, providing thousands of pages of materials within a month; publicizing their visits to campus; facilitating interviews of faculty, staff, students, and community members; and supplying them with updates as they compiled information for the next 16 months,” he said. “During that time, UNM staff, faculty, and students continued to work to make our campus safer and more responsive to issues surrounding sexual violence.”
Frank said, to address the results of the Pilgrim report, UNM took the following actions:
• Created the LoboRESPECT Student Group to advocate for student safety through Peer-to-Peer interactions, and launched the “Protect The Pack” awareness video;
• Revised UNM New Student Orientation with added emphasis on education about sexual assault and alcohol use;
• Expanded UNM’s training efforts toward sexual harassment and assault by emphasizing resources, and also purchased a new online training system, in its’ pilot test phase, that will roll out to all students next year;
• Approved an overarching sexual assault policy that applies to students, staff, faculty and visitors;
• Hired Francie Cordova, the highly qualified new director for the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) and changed the reporting structure so OEO now reports directly to the Office of the President;
• Created and filled positions in OEO, including Title IX Coordinator Heather Cowan and Clery Compliance Officer Rob Burford;
• Opened the “first stop” LoboRESPECT Advocacy Center;
• Commissioned a Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault, using a national firm with scientific assessment processes designed to sample 10,000 individuals.
Frank said his response to the DOJ report affirmed UNM’s commitment to working with the DOJ to address the issues raised, but also questioned the limited acknowledgement of the valuable work that the UNM campus community has done so far.
“However, the concerns I voiced do not alter our strong cooperation and commitment. We are already in productive discussions with the DOJ on an agreement, and will do our best to make needed changes as quickly as possible,” he said.
Frank said he was confident UNM will reach an agreement with the DOJ.
“Furthermore, I will continue to encourage and support best practices to improve the ways we respond to sexual harassment and assault,” he said. “I pledge to remain committed to ensuring that UNM offers a fair process and a safe campus for everyone.”