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Changes to MSU Title IX, an office transformed by scandal

January 23, 2020
<p>A woman wears a teal ribbon during a Board of Trustees meeting on Jan. 13, 2019 at the Hannah Administration Building. </p>

A woman wears a teal ribbon during a Board of Trustees meeting on Jan. 13, 2019 at the Hannah Administration Building.

Photo by Sylvia Jarrus | The State News

In a quiet corner of Olds Hall, Robert Kent leads Michigan State’s Office for Civil Rights and Title IX Education and Compliance. He sits at his desk rapidly typing up emails, returning phone calls and scheduling meeting after meeting. 

“The creation of this office was on the heels of a lot of publicity surrounding (Larry) Nassar,” Kent said. “It was made to show our commitment to making sure that we’re addressing sexual harassment, sexual violence, sexual assault.”

In June 2018, Kent was appointed interim associate vice president for MSU’s civil rights office. He hasn’t had a slow day since.

Kent’s appointment to the civil rights office drew some criticism from advocates for survivors, as Kent defended MSU against sexual assault lawsuits in the past as an attorney. 

Former MSU interim president John Engler made the decision to move Kent from his position as assistant general counsel, causing critics to say the move sent a discouraging message from the university.

In a Detroit Free Press article, Rachel Denhollander, the first woman to publicly speak out against Nassar, said the appointment of Kent to handle Title IX cases was an insensitive move.

Former Wake Forest Title IX Coordinator Tanya Jachimiak will take over Kent's role in the adminsitration Feb. 3.

Not long after the U.S. Department of Education found MSU out of compliance with two federal laws, they opened two more investigations. MSU was notified in September that the Office for Civil Rights had opened an investigation into their non-compliance with Title IX and the Clery Act. 

One of the new investigations was based on a complaint from alumna Hannah Smith, who claimed a Title IX Investigator failed to prevent her from seeing a professor she accused of sexually harassing her. She also claimed MSU failed to provide a prompt response to her complaint. 

Given that the Title IX office has had problems with officers dissuading students against reporting assault, the faculty seek to prioritize student needs. 

Kent oversees the Office of Institutional Equity, or OIE, the Prevention, Outreach & Education Department, or POE, and the information MSU provides about supportive resources across campus.

His office aims to educate the MSU community on how to prevent, identify and report discrimination, harassment and gender-based violence.  

Two years since Nassar’s sexual assault conviction, the civil rights office has largely expanded its staff, Kent said.

“These aren’t easy issues,” Kent said. “We’re here to fulfill our mission to end harassment and discrimination and hold people accountable for it regardless of who you are.”

He said he views his responsibility as ensuring MSU’s civil rights compliance and cultivating a campus community free from discrimination and harassment.

“The university is committed to making our campus the safest, most inclusive campus that it can be,” Kent said. “This commitment isn’t just in rhetoric. The people put their money where their mouth is. The people, the commitment to structure and commitment to the people within this office, is one of the manifestations of that commitment.” 

Kent said, while the aim to end harassment and discrimination benefits the university, the office does not seek to protect the university by any means.

“We’ve had plenty of investigations that involve people on campus in administrative capacities and employees and others,” Kent said. “We’ve made findings and people have been held accountable for those things.”

Ex-MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon’s trial centers around a 2014 Title IX complaint about Nassar that went unaddressed. Prosecutors argue she lied to police about her knowledge of the complaint.

Then-Title IX coordinator Paulette Granberry Russell is transitioning to an advisory role for President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. 

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Kent also said the office moves as quickly and as equitably as possible.

“We’ve been working very, very hard to try to reduce the timelines for our cases and we continue to do so,” he said. 

Within the OCR is the Office of Institutional Equity. Their main purpose is to investigate misconduct that breaks Title IX or anti-discrimination policies. Any MSU student, employee or third party who wishes to make a complaint can file a report through OIE and then decide if they would like to involve law enforcement. 

Since OIE’s main role is to investigate misconduct, newly named Director Melody Werner made urgency one of her top goals when taking on the role as director of OIE. 

“I’m trying to convey to everyone within my department the idea of urgency,” Werner said. “Unlike a lot of other offices on campus, we have an urgent issue to respond to ... If someone is reporting to us that they have been sexually assaulted, in my mind that’s urgent.”

In 2018 the average case took 190 days. Now, it takes 118, she said. 

Werner joined MSU’s OIE after working at Eastern Michigan University as their Title IX coordinator — her goals include improving the reporting process and increasing awareness and trust of what OIE does.

“If people are discouraging people from reporting, that means something is wrong with what we’re doing,” Werner said. “Rather than go attack the people who are discouraging, I’ve got to start from the inside and say, we need to build trust. We need to have a system that people trust and that they feel good about.”  

The Outreach and Education Department within OCR has also grown in size since Nassar’s conviction.

“So the program that I’ve been doing since 2008, is the SARV program,” Prevention, Outreach and Education Director Kelly Schweda said, referring to the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Prevention Program. “That really is just to get everybody on the same page about what relationship violence and sexual misconduct is, where to go for resources if you know someone that’s been affected, or you’re affected yourself ... then what to do if you actually see something on campus.” 

Schweda also talked about the changes she has seen on campus and within her office. 

“A lot of what’s happening on our campus brought awareness to a lot of people that didn’t really recognize the extent of what was happening on campus,” Schweda said. “I know a lot of other campuses are really struggling, they are where we were before 2018 … the ability to branch out as broadly and reach so many voices and so many different people ... is impacting the campus in a very positive way.” 

Schweda also said she finds support for survivors important in her position. 

“I think the most critical thing that people need to remember is that survivors need to be believed and supported on our campus,” Schweda said. “I think sometimes we get caught up in a lot of things and forget that basic piece.”

Editor's note — This article has been updated to reflect Kent's involvement in Michigan State litigation.

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