By Kaitlyn Alford
As of this year, Dr. Sylvia Gray now serves as the Title IX Coordinator for the University after Professor Kelly Malone, appointed to the position following Dr. Nancy Berner’s promotion to Provost, stepped down to return to full-time teaching in the English department.
Gray received her PhD in Higher Education Administration from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and served there as a hearing officer within the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities until her appointment at Sewanee in October of 2017 as deputy Title IX coordinator.
Her role includes ensuring compliance with Title IX regulations, conducting investigations into complaints, and coordinating Title IX education on campus, including prevention programs and training for faculty, staff, and students.
Gray hopes to provide students with easier access to Title IX information as it applies to all aspects of student living and to increase transparency of Title IX initiatives on campus. To this end, posters will be put up around campus that will summarize resources and options available to students through Title IX.
“I wouldn’t say we’re taking a different approach as much as we’re just trying to turn the past approach on its head,” said Gray. While she wants students to know that they can always come to her, whether that be by e-mail or by going to her office in Woods Lab, Gray is making it her priority to meet students where they are.
While most of the conversation surrounding Title IX focuses on sexual assault, that is not the only way Title IX applies to campus life. Gray wants students to ask questions and get answers that go beyond, “How do I avoid getting into trouble?”
The Charlie Rose scandal last year helped bring to light some of the ways in which the University’s long-standing fraternity culture enables the protection of alleged offenders within the University. Many felt that the response of Vice-Chancellor John McCardell and the Board of Regents was out of touch with the opinions of the student body and faculty.
“It feels obvious that Title IX enforcement is not a priority for this administration. They’ve placed the responsibility for changing campus climate entirely on the students,” expressed one student who wished to remain anonymous.
Gray hopes to change that perception on campus. She acknowledges the ways in which efforts related to Title IX, such as trainings and group conversations, haven’t worked well in the past.
“The effectiveness of pre-scheduled training is questionable,” she said. The approach she’s taken this year is to go to students and staff, including proctors, Bairnwick Women’s Center members, athletic coaches and trainers, Finding Your Place students and staff, and to say, “When can we meet with you?”
“When we say, ‘come to this thing at this time on this day,’ a couple things happen. One: the people who show up are the people who always show up; you aren’t reaching anyone new. And two, no one pays all that much attention because they’re thinking about where else they need to be and what else they need to do,” said Gray, “and then they leave and the conversation is over.” With this approach, Gray plans to meet with these groups at multiple points during the school year in order to maintain an open dialogue.
Gray hopes that one thing to come out of these conversations will be a wider understanding of consent. “I want to open the conversation to go beyond the idea of ‘Just Ask.’ Let’s talk about actual situations that come up, what to do when someone responds in a certain way, about how to manage the situation and to really clue into what’s going on in the process of getting consent,” Gray said. She emphasized that “consent is a process, not just a yes or no.”
Since her arrival, Gray has been working steadily toward changing the student body’s perception of Title IX-related actions on campus. Through the course of her meetings with students, new approaches to tackling Title IX issues are beginning to form on campus.
After meeting with Gray to discuss concerns regarding the current student body involvement with Title IX, Mac Bouldin (C’19), Student Government Association (SGA) president, along with presidents of the Interfraternity and Intersorority Councils Mary Margaret Murdock (C’19) and Garrett Lucey (C’19), issued a statement condemning sexual misconduct.
“SGA has a fundamental role in charting a path for the campus culture moving forward. I feel that there is enormous potential to work with Greek Life in order to guide that change and to set new standards of behavior we can all be proud of,” Bouldin commented.
SGA is now in the early stages of developing a Title IX student advisory board to function similarly to the Faculty Advisory Board. More information on this board will be reported as it becomes available.
Gray has focused on ensuring that the University’s documentation of complaints, investigations, and disciplinary actions is thorough and accessible in case of future records requests or subsequent or related complaints.
In the past, deans conducted investigations into Title IX complaints in addition to filling their primary roles. This could be problematic when these roles conflicted. “I was uncomfortable with Dean [Alexander] Bruce investigating my complaint because I’d met with him earlier in the year when I was having issues with my grades because I was so stressed about [the incident being investigated],” recalled a senior student.
The use of investigators with other primary roles also complicated procedures and recordkeeping. Gray hopes that a single investigator will expedite investigative procedures and increase student trust in the investigative process.
To be clear, Gray does not handle any conduct hearings that may arise from the findings of the investigations; she simply collects statements and other relevant information.
The Sewanee Purple will continue to offer additional information on new Title IX initiatives as further material emerges. Given that it is the beginning of the semester, many of the initiatives for this year are not yet in a state to be implemented.