Transparency and Accountability in Higher Education

by T.J. Winick, Senior Vice President

It wasn’t so long ago when colleges and universities were the beneficiaries of a trusting deference; when it was believed they could be counted on to “do the right thing.” As a result, they were left alone to police themselves.

That now seems like ancient history.

I recently attended a panel called Transparency and Accountability: Pressures Facing Schools Today, hosted by the law firm Goodwin Procter. The panel of general counsels from area colleges and universities acknowledged that today there is a widespread mistrust of higher education. The reasons are many, they said, including cost, lack of accessibility and the strident liberalism that exists on many campuses.

At this time of increased expectations and skepticism, simple and clear messages that communicate what an institution is and is not are more important than ever to maintaining or regaining trust.

Lisa Sinclair, Associate Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Northeastern University, cited a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that provides skeptics of higher education with yet another talking point: current policies and procedures addressing sexual harassment on campus were found to be ineffective; focusing on symbolic compliance with the law and on avoiding liability instead of holistic culture change.

One of the Academies’ recommendations was to “improve transparency and accountability” (hence the name of the panel). It found that campuses on which “prohibitions against unacceptable behaviors are clear and that hold members of the community accountable for meeting behavioral and cultural expectations established by leadership have lower rates of sexual harassment.”

The report recommended that schools make clarity and fairness a priority: in their policies and standards of behavior, in their investigative process, and in their decisions regarding disciplinary action.

Of course, arriving at a place of clarity and fairness in matters of sexual misconduct is easier said than done. Christine Hughes, Vice President and General Counsel at Emerson College, conceded that, more often than not, adjudicating these cases is a challenging and arduous process for those in leadership.

And yet these cases are often oversimplified when discussed in the abstract.

Hughes noted how “sexual misconduct” is often discussed in monolithic terms, quickly losing any nuance (between a stolen kiss and a brutal sexual assault). That’s why it’s necessary to have tranches of protocols and template statements prepared based on the severity of the infraction to address claims judiciously. She also reminded those gathered that there are many different audiences to consider when addressing issues of sexual misconduct and that the institution is accountable to all.

MIT’s Vice President and General Counsel Mark DiVincenzo noted that one of the greatest challenges to transparency around disciplinary issues is protecting the privacy of those involved. Additionally, with today’s 24-hour news cycle and social media, there is increasing pressure to act quickly without having all the facts. DiVincenzo believes part of the general counsel’s chief responsibilities during these times is to “put a drag on a rush to judgment.”

Yet, one way for leadership to combat this is to communicate early and often. While it might not prevent rumors from spreading, at least potential critics will be armed with accurate information.

Higher education can move beyond token gestures in addressing issues of gender inequity and sexual harassment is to institute more holistic policies intended to change the dynamic on campus. Panelists agreed that analyzing and adequately communicating campus climate survey data was one effective path towards real change.

One specific recommendation in the Academies’ report is to use climate survey reports to provide public summaries of outcomes (e.g., “suspension for undergrad assault”). Those on the panel, however, agreed there’s a smarter strategy to both protect a student’s privacy and make a meaningful difference. Schools can use the survey data to communicate vulnerabilities as well as inform policy creation to address those weaknesses. All agreed this is far more useful and important than detailing the outcomes of particular complaints.

While there are many ongoing challenges to addressing sexual misconduct on campus, the panelists agreed that an increased emphasis on transparency and accountability since the Dear Colleague letter of 2011 has helped create an environment where targets of sexual harassment and victims of misconduct feel more comfortable stepping out of the shadows. According to the report, this is essential, as coming forward to report such a transgression must be recognized as “an honorable and courageous action.”

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