Breaking down UMass’ Title IX Student Advisory Task Force

The Title IX Student Advisory Task Force recently held their first meeting

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McKenna Premus / Daily Collegian

By Jack Underhill, Collegian Staff

In response to the allegations of sexual assault against the Theta Chi fraternity in September, the University of Massachusetts administration implemented the Title IX Student Advisory Task Force in an ongoing effort to address sexual violence and discrimination on campus.

“The protests that sparked this past fall I think brought a lot of awareness and conversations surrounding what students do and don’t know with Title IX, and there’s a clear gap that needs to be bridged between students and administration,” said task force member Clare Sheedy, a junior  public health and women’s gender and sexuality studies double major.

Associate Vice Chancellor for Equal Opportunity and Title IX Coordinator Kerri Thompson Tillett leads the task force, which consists of nine graduate and undergraduate student members.

In an email to the campus community on Nov. 4, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy announced the creation of the task force and outlined its four main goals:

  1. “Offering student input and perspectives on policy, procedures, programming, education and communication efforts related to sexual misconduct.”
  2. “Serving as liaison between students and the administration on matters related to Title IX.”
  3. “Helping to identify emerging issues and trends.”
  4. “Raising awareness about ongoing efforts to confront sexual misconduct on campus.”

While these goals are UMass specific, Title IX is a federal law that was enacted by congress and signed by Richard Nixon in 1972. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex under any education program, including sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence.

The task force held its first meeting on Nov. 18 over Zoom. It served as an introduction for the members to discuss goals for the future of the group.

“We went over the purpose of what the task force is, what kind of goals we were looking to accomplish, how we wanted to kind of keep students in the loop about what we did,” Raaya Alim, committee member and fifth-year journalism and neuroscience student said.

“I think some of our main areas of focus were, like I mentioned, making reporting processes a lot more streamlined, and having more proactive prevention programs in place,” Alim said.

Tillett mediated the Zoom session, prompting the question, “What does success look like for this committee?”

“It helped me to see sort of where they were coming from, and also to sort of see where our minds are already meeting,” Tillett said.

According to Tillett and Alim, the task force is planning to circulate a sexual misconduct climate survey, much like the recent Campus Climate Survey, that will help understand student perspectives about sexual misconduct on campus. The survey is predicted to be released some time next semester.

Similar to the open forum held by University administrators in September, the committee aims to hold forums in the future for students to contribute their own ideas of how the committee can improve campus culture.

“Just so people can voice a concern or ask for other changes and things they want to see. But those are just the kind of ideas that we’re passing around right now, we don’t have anything specific yet,” Alim said.

While the task force is directed towards aiding students in situations of sexual discrimination and assault, educating faculty on Title IX is also a topic they hope to address.

“Just communicating who is a mandated reporter and who’s not a mandated reporter, and just kind of making things clear if they were to go through a timeline process,” Alim said.

Along with the creation of the Title IX Student Advisory Task Force was the hiring of an outside firm to investigate sexual misconduct on the UMass campus from 2014 to the present. The Comprehensive Investigations and Consulting firm is a separate investigation from the task force, but Tillett hopes that it will yield also useful results.

“It’s sort of a data look back review, so that they can provide a trend analysis to us so that we can see some spaces that we need to pay particular attention to,” Tillett said.

At this time, the task force is made up of all female members, but Tillett encourages any student to speak with her if they are interested in the group’s goals.

“I think it’s important to have a wide perspective of opinions on this committee because we know that Title IX issues don’t just affect one gender, all genders are affected,” Tillett said. “If other people want to participate, I would encourage them to reach out to me and we can certainly discuss it.”

Leela Ramachandran, a public health sciences major, is also a member of the task force. She was motivated to join after her own personal experience with the Title IX process. In an email, Ramachandran described that experience.

“I’m a transfer student and I left my previous institution because I went through the Title IX process, the perpetrator was removed from my college, and then readmitted,” Ramachandran wrote.

“The Title IX system ultimately failed me, and if I can improve the implementation and rollout of federal guidance here, I want to. People deserve to be served by this office rather than for it to create additional barriers, even if unintentionally,” she continued.

Before being appointed as the head of the Title IX Student Advisory Task Force, Tillett assumed her duties as the associate vice chancellor for equal opportunity on May 17, 2021. Prior to her arrival at UMass, however, Tillett already held an extensive background of more than 15 years in the field of equal opportunity. Most recently, Tillett held the position of associate vice president for the Division of Inclusive Excellence at the College of New Jersey and was active in federal government and other public organizations dealing with discrimination and harassment. Tillett spoke of her experience working at the College of New Jersey.

“I was responsible for equal opportunity, but also making sure that there were opportunities to connect people on our campus so that people would really be able to experience the campus in a way that shows the diversity of experience, identities and backgrounds,” Tillett explained. “So I think that role has helped me to be successful in this current role, absolutely.”

Before joining the committee, member Claire Sheedy founded the Hampshire County track of “Explain the Asterisk,” an organization committed to ending sexual violence on college campuses through policy reform. She is also working closely on the Survivor’s Bill of Rights, which outlines the rights of sexual assault victims.

“Doing whatever I can to bring awareness to the issue and making it so that no more people have to take on the title as survivor is, you know, something that’s very near and dear to my heart,” Sheedy said.

Alim also possesses a background in issues surrounding Title IX as the president of “It’s On Us,” a national organization fighting sexual assault on campuses.

Although the task force has only held one meeting so far, they plan to continue meeting biweekly in the new year, primarily over Zoom.

“I really want to stress that we’re still in our baby stages,” Alim said. “So we’re hoping that come probably, like, February we will be a little bit more developed. And we’ll be able to actually have some explicit changes that we’re able to make.”

The UMass Title IX website provides various outlets for students to report concerns, as well as resources for survivors to take the steps to report an assault.

“I’m hoping that, as a group, we will be able to make campus safer, and also just really be able to help students understand that, like, this is something that is for them, it’s not really something for the administration,” Alim said.

Jack Underhill can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @JackUnderhill16.