Compliance isn’t care: the issue with Title IX

By Justin Burton

IN recent months, The Rider News has done excellent work keeping the community up-to-date on the University’s ongoing struggle to implement Title IX. It’s a struggle that’s been exacerbated by a high rate of employee turnover and the constant shuffling of job duties that has made it hard for anyone temporarily responsible for Title IX to develop any kind of consistency or to dig the university out from under its backlog of complaints. As the university works toward being in compliance with Title IX, though, it’s important for us to remember that we should dream bigger and demand greater than compliance. 

One of the most consistent messages that comes through The Rider News’ reporting is that students don’t feel cared for while navigating the Title IX process. I want to be sure to make the distinction here between being cared about and being cared for. 

Caring about someone is squishy and involves feelings; I have little doubt that many who have worked in and with Rider’s Title IX offices care about the students and employees they encounter there. Caring for someone is concrete and active; it means discerning what someone needs and providing it, and it requires institutional resolve and resources. 

This is the kind of care that students seem to be missing when they discuss their experiences, and I imagine it’s an ideal form of care that many think would be realized when the university is able to better comply with Title IX. But Title IX doesn’t require that institutions care for victims of sexual harassment and assault, and it in fact disincentivizes care for those victims.

If this seems counter-intuitive, it’s because it is. After all, the point of Title IX, a 1972 amendment to the 1965 Higher Education Act, is to ban sex and gender discrimination in university settings, inclusive of harassment and assault. Title IX, in that sense, definitely cares about sex and gender discrimination, but the way it enacts that care about discrimination somewhat illogically results in a lack of care for victims of discrimination. 

In her 2015 essay “Campus Sex, Campus Security,” Jennifer Doyle observes that Title IX attempts to address matters like sexual assault and harassment by forcing the university to experience “its own vulnerability.” A university that is deemed non-compliant with Title IX is in violation of the law, Doyle underlines, and “vulnerable to fines and lawsuits.” 

In other words, when a university receives a Title IX complaint from a member of its community, the university, in a state of financial vulnerability, is most likely to figuratively turn away from that victim and toward the federal government in an attempt to proclaim itself blameless. The best outcome for a university is to prove that nothing actually happened to the complainant or, short of that, that it was someone else’s fault.

A lack of care for victims of sexual assault and harassment isn’t unique to Rider and isn’t just a problem with Title IX. Sara Ahmed in her 2021 book “Complaint!” exposes many of the same problems in United Kingdom higher education complaint processes. In the book’s first sentence, Ahmed states the problem succinctly: “To be heard as complaining is not to be heard.” 

Let’s go one more step: to not be heard is to not be cared for. Ahmed traces the same contours Doyle does in documenting universities’ struggle to hear victims and their subsequent reticence to provide care for those victims of sexual assault and harassment. We can see in the composite that Title IX is really part of a larger genre of bureaucracy that is meant to manage complaints by minimizing them.

So as we, as a community, continue to ask Rider to fulfill its obligation to be compliant with Title IX, we should also ask for more than that. If Title IX slyly disincentives care for victims of sexual assault and harassment, then we must work beyond the boundaries of compliance and consider what our community members need when they bring a complaint to the Title IX office. 

This might include the guaranteed presence of a professional who is trained to receive victims of assault. It could include a similar professional who can advocate for someone whose traumatic experience makes it difficult for them to retrieve details that an interviewer may believe should be readily available. It could include resources that connect a victim of assault with ongoing access to trauma-informed therapy with costs covered by the university. And so much more. Because when we recognize that compliance isn’t care, we free ourselves up to get to the work of providing each other with what’s really needed.

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