An inside look at the Office of Institutional Equity and its process
The Office of Institutional Equity at MSU was created almost two years ago, but students might still be unfamiliar with the office and how it works. The office was created in April 2015 as a way to review discrimination, harassment, sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking concerns.
It investigates cases that occur on MSU’s campus to look at them in terms of university policy.
“Some MSU community members think when relationship violence or sexual misconduct or stalking or anything that could be perceived as a crime is happening, that if they have the police involved, that that’s all there is for them,” Debra Martinez, a senior institutional equity investigator for the OIE, said. “You can also come to OIE and have our office address it from the university side.”
While every institution is required by federal law to have an office on campus that responds to discrimination and harassment, not every university or college’s Title IX office operates in the same way.
The OIE does work with the university. The office holds independent investigations, Jessica Norris, OIE Title IX Coordinator and ADA Coordinator said. She said the OIE is not a separate agency or a representative from the government.
“We are an entity here at MSU’s campus, but specifically, we report directly to the president, so there’s no sort of influence in what we’re doing,” OIE Director Ande Durojaiye said. “We essentially can investigate anything and anyone on campus that falls within our jurisdiction, and no one would be able to interfere with that, so to speak ... We’re Michigan State employees but we’re independent in our investigatory capacity.” Durojaiye said.
Members of the university community could end up at the OIE in a number of different ways, but it always starts with a complaint. It could be a self-report, a walk-in, a phone call or a bystander that reports a claim.
The information could also reach the OIE through a mandatory reporter on campus. At MSU, a mandatory reporter is any university employee — with a few exceptions such as employees in the MSU Safe Place and the Counseling Center among others — who is required to report any alleged sexual misconduct or relationship violence to the OIE upon obtaining the information, according to the OIE website.
After a complaint is made to the OIE, an investigator is assigned to the claim. The investigator will reach out to the claimant to discuss the allegations, to determine whether the claimant wants to pursue the case and to plan the next steps.
If a case is to be pursued, the investigator will reach out to the person whose actions are questionable to discuss his or her side of the story. Witness statements are also a way for the OIE investigator to get more information about an alleged incident.
“We look at all other outside evidence that’s available, so anything that’s available to the parties want to come forward and bring to us, we take into account when conducting an investigation,” Durojaiye said.
These witnesses can be anyone who might have seen or heard something, who has firsthand knowledge of what happened or people who heard about or were told about an incident soon after it happened, Martinez said.
The investigative process is very open for the individuals involved, Durojaiye said. He said there is never a situation when the parties are not aware or made aware of what’s going on within the case under investigation.
“The process is extremely transparent for the individuals involved in it,” Durojaiye said. “Any information we have that we compile as part of our investigation is turned over to the parties. ... Individuals who are participating in the process are kept informed and kept aware of what’s going on.”
However, because of confidentiality purposes, the process cannot be transparent to the point where witnesses or third parties can see what information has been provided to the investigator.
“For example, witnesses aren’t going to know what’s been presented in the case and our office, due to federal privacy regulations and laws, we can’t share details of the cases, for example, with the media or with other faculty, staff or students,” Norris said.
At the conclusion of gathering information, a “draft report” with all of the information provided during the course of an investigation is documented and included in the report, Durojaiye said.
“This draft is sent out to the parties so they can know exactly what we’ve done and what steps we’ve taken and if there’s any additional feedback or anything they want us to take into account before making a final determination,” he said.
After this, the OIE must make a final determination about whether or not there was a violation in university policy. If a violation in policy is found, the OIE issues their report to the governing body that would have jurisdiction to take disciplinary action. The disciplinary decision is out of the OIE’s hands as they do not make legal settlements and it is not a part of their process, Norris said. In the case of a student matter, the report would be referred to Student Conduct.
If it’s an employee matter, it would be referred to Academic Human Relations, Durojaiye said.
For students, the disciplinary decision falls to a panel comprised of one staff member, one faculty member and one student, Norris said.
The panel reviews the report and recommends a sanction.
According to MSU’s Faculty Handbook, there are two types of discipline for faculty and staff: minor and serious.
Minor discipline could include verbal or written reprimand, mandatory training, foregoing salary increase or reassigning of duties among others.
Serious discipline could include suspension with or without pay and if attempts at discipline have not remedied performance concerns, a faculty member may be dismissed.
In the case of minor discipline, after the employee in question meets with the unit administrator to discuss potential discipline to be assigned, the faculty member has the right to request a consultation with the department or school faculty advisory committee, its chair or the chair of the University Committee on Faculty Affairs, or UCFA, personnel subcommittee before any disciplinary action is taken, according to the Faculty Handbook.
This is an attempt to reconcile disputes and resolve misunderstandings. If the unit administrator wants to proceed with a minor disciplinary action after the consultation, they are required to consult with the Dean and the Office of the Associate Provost to discuss the proposed action.
The unit administrator then will make a determination of discipline, a process that varies depending on whether it is a minor or serious disciplinary decision.
As for determining serious disciplinary action for faculty and staff, after the unit administrator meets with the employee in question, both the faculty member and the administrator are encouraged to meet with the chair of UCFA to discuss the matter.
If that meeting does not resolve the discipline issue, the unit administrator will consult with the Dean and the Office of the Associate Provost to discuss the proposed disciplinary action, according to the handbook.
The faculty member can then either file a written statement with the unit administrator regarding the proposed discipline or request to meet with a UCFA disciplinary review panel, who would come to a disciplinary recommendation to be taken into consideration before the unit administrator makes a final disciplinary decision.
The panel will be comprised of three current UCFA members, and no member of the review panel will be involved in making a recommendation for a faculty member from the same college in which the panel member is appointed, according to the handbook. Both the faculty member and the Chair of the UCFA can request to excuse a member of the panel if there is a conflict of interest.
If neither of these actions are taken, the originally proposed disciplinary action will go into effect.
An appeal process has also recently been implemented for students and faculty to appeal OIE decisions. In the case that this course of action is taken, an independent equity review officer would look into the determination to determine whether the final determination is in compliance with OIE policies and procedures.
Not all cases are closed in this manner, however. An administrative closure means the OIE has closed the case before its completion, and it can happen for a number of reasons. It could be because the OIE doesn’t have jurisdiction, like in a case where the individual whose actions are under investigation is not affiliated with the university. It could also be a result of non-participation in a case, Durojaiye said.
The role of the OIE on campus might not be understood by all MSU community members, but the OIE serves as the office for students to go to for information about university policy in terms of discrimination, harassment, sexual assault, relationship violence or stalking concerns.
“Part of our efforts have involved increasing the transparency through the release of the Title IX annual report and improving things like our education prevention programs,” Norris said. “It’s definitely a work in progress, but certainly, if you look at where we are today from a few years ago, we’ve made a lot of progress.”