Laura Rugless will begin work Saturday, July 1 as Michigan State University’s vice president for civil rights and Title IX education and compliance, filling an almost two-year vacancy.
Rugless will helm the university’s handling and prevention of discrimination and sexual misconduct as directed by the federal Title IX statute.
Her appointment comes after years of Title IX tumult in seemingly every part of the university’s administration.
MSU’s last two presidents resigned after issues with Title IX; in Fall 2022, faculty and student groups lost confidence in MSU’s board over its issues with Title IX; in athletics, the university recently settled a years-long Title IX lawsuit with members of its former swim and dive team; MSU led a group of universities petitioning the US supreme court to review the Title IX statute; three MSU deans resigned in the last year over either issues with Title IX or issues with the university’s apathy to it; and the president, provost, board and six other top administrators are currently being sued over their handling of one of those resignations, following the board’s $1.6 million outside investigation into the matter.
That all comes after the Larry Nassar scandal, which put the university’s mishandling of the former doctor’s years-long sexual abuse under a national spotlight.
But Rugless says that in meeting with MSU’s administrators and other campus groups during the search, she saw a “palpable commitment” to improving on “that painful history.”
That dedication convinced her to leave her current role heading Title IX for Cornell University and join MSU.
“Having been a civil rights compliance professional for a long time at various universities, MSU felt very different in terms of the strength of their commitment,” Rugless said.
Part of that commitment is the elevation of Rugless’ role to a vice presidency from its previous associate level, which she believes will put her “at the table” on decisions that would otherwise not be considered with Title IX in mind.
“These issues aren’t just about civil rights, but how it contributes to the broader campus culture. They span the whole university,” Rugless said. “So, being in those discussions and being at the table is really going to be key.”
As part of the broader cultural improvements Rugless hopes to usher in, she says looking at prevention will be a major part of her early actions.
Specifically, she wants to find ways to catch discrimination and harassment “early on,” before it becomes something that would require intervention from the OIE.
Rugless said she hopes to educate the campus on how to have conversations that address “lower level” incidents, in hopes of “course correcting” before more serious things occur that would lead to formal reports handled by her investigators.
Those incidents could be precursors to incidents of relationship violence and sexual misconduct, or they could be instances of discrimination, which she hopes to address in collaboration with MSU’s vice president for diversity and inclusion, Jabbar Bennet.
When there are incidents that violate policies, Rugless hopes to create a culture that encourages survivors to report them to the OIE for an investigation.
A large part of that, she says, will be improving the timeline.
The most recent available outside audits of MSU’s Title IX office found that on average, an investigation takes 361 days to complete. That means a survivor who reports abuse could go through more than the entire academic year before actions like suspension or expulsion of their abuser is even considered in a disciplinary hearing.
Rugless said solving that issue will come down to staff, both in terms of how many investigators she can have, as well as training and experience that will equip each one to work most effectively.
She says that she’ll have to further assess the needs of the office after beginning work next week, but already, MSU has hired five new investigators to expand the OIE.