Title IX was once thought of as the final word on women in college sports. Now, it’s shorthand for sexual assault protection. But at Northwestern, is that enough?

By Rachel Fobar

Dillo Day was on May 25 in 2002. Béla Fleck and the Flecktones performed and Julie* was just three weeks shy of finishing up her freshman year at Northwestern. Thoughts of finals were far from everyone’s mind, but instead of celebrating the end of the school year at the concerts with her friends, Julie was trapped in a living nightmare.

Julie, who published her story in a now defunct student publication two quarters after the incident, says that as the day progressed, she ended up at a fraternity house with a group of people. One of those people was a student with whom she had previously been in a physical relationship.

“After I’d had enough of watching him stumble around with his Bacardi, I made it my job to get him up into his bed before he passed out,” she writes. “Plan: Direct him up onto his loft and go home.”

Things didn’t work out as she had planned, however. As she turned to leave his room, he blocked her path.

“My stomach dropped at the heavy ‘thunk’ of the deadbolt,” she writes. She says he picked her up and threw her on his bed, where he raped her three times.

In the last three weeks of the school year, Julie says she struggled through finals. Meanwhile, she says he claimed he was too drunk to remember the incident. She spent the summer grappling with anorexia, insomnia, suicidal thoughts and drug use.

Julie says she didn’t want to report the incident to the police, whom she feared would be insensitive and skeptical of her story, especially since she had willingly slept with him before the alleged rape.

“To prosecute would mean that I could be called a liar, that I would not only have to relive the event but prove I wasn’t lying,” she writes. Back in the early 2000s, there were fewer resources for sexual assault victims, and Julie says she didn’t know where to go.

She did, however, want to protect other girls from the alleged rapist, who had been hired as an RA for the 2002-03 school year.

When Julie reported the incident to the Office of Residential Life, she says they refused to take action since she “had not filed a complaint after the incident.” When reached for comment, the Office of Residential Life reiterated this point. He retained his position as an RA.

Thirteen years ago, this incident likely wouldn’t have been viewed as a Title IX issue. Since then, college campuses have been held more accountable for sexual assaults because of increased media attention, the White House has spoken out and Northwestern has updated its sexual assault policies and trial procedures. But does this mean Northwestern students are better protected than they were before?

Title IX’s beginnings

For many years, there was a misconception that Title IX primarily protected athletes. In reality, the inspiration for Title IX had nothing to do with sports. It all began in 1969 with a recommendation from Bernice Sandler, who was denied a position at the University of Maryland after receiving her doctorate there in Counseling and Personnel Services. When she asked why she was not considered for any of the seven openings in the department, a male faculty member told her, “Let’s face it. You come on too strong for a woman.”

Often called the “Godmother of Title IX,” Sandler recommended that Congress hold a hearing on sex discrimination in education. In 1970, they did. Sandler testified before the congressional committee about discrimination against women in higher education, and this hearing led to the creation of Title IX.

Signed into law by Richard Nixon in June 1972, Title IX ensures,

The law addresses 10 areas: access to higher education, career education, education for pregnant and parenting students, employment, athletics, learning environment, math and science, standardized testing, technology and sexual harassment.

In the early days of Title IX at Northwestern, the law was viewed as assurance that women would receive equal treatment in sports. University President Robert Strotz appointed an Ad Hoc Committee on Intercollegiate Sports in 1974 to study the status of women’s sports on campus and to assess whether Northwestern complied with Title IX. Varsity status became open to women in 1975, and by September 1976 the Women’s Athletic Department offered its first scholarships to student-athletes.

Despite these advances, hostility toward women athletes persisted. An unnamed female basketball player complained of “little things” in a January 1976 article in The Daily Northwestern. “Every day before practice we’re issued a roll of pants, a shirt, socks, a towel and a jock strap,” she says. “We tried using them (the jockstraps) as headbands, but they fell off.”

In the last few years, the law has attracted attention in a sexual assault context. Title IX gives sexual assault victims an extra layer of protection–while it might be easy for a university to dismiss a college student filing a complaint, it’s almost impossible to ignore a Title IX lawsuit.

“It adds real legal responsibility for schools to do something,” says says Communication senior Olivia Seligman, Sexual Health and Assault Peer Education (SHAPE) communications director. “So it’s not just like, ‘Do the right thing.’ It’s sort of like, ‘You have to do this.’”

Sexual harassment was not even considered sex discrimination until Alexander v. Yale in 1980, when five Yale College students and alumni used Title IX for charges of sexual harassment against the university. Though the women lost the case on technical grounds, the lawsuit accomplished its goals. Yale instituted a complaint procedure for victims of sexual harassment, and the court determined that sexual harassment counted as sex discrimination.

Flash forward 35 years, and Title IX is almost synonymous with legal protection from sexual assault on college campuses. In 2011, the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter to university employees, explaining that Title IX covers sexual violence. Vox called 2014 the year “college sexual assault became impossible to ignore.” Universities like Harvard and Princeton were found in violation of Title IX, the White House formed a task force to protect college students from sexual assault and Emma Sulkowicz carried her mattress around Columbia University to protest her alleged rapist’s continued presence at the school. And at Northwestern, a Medill senior sued the University under Title IX in February 2014, alleging that former philosophy professor Peter Ludlow sexually assaulted her in 2012.

What has Northwestern done?

“Protect us, not our
“We will not be

A group of students, wearing tape on their mouths and carrying signs with phrases like “Protect us, not our reputation” and “We will not be silenced,” protested Ludlow’s philosophy class by hosting a sit-in last Spring Quarter. After the protesters left the class, they marched to the Rock and eventually to the Weinberg Dean’s Office. So what does a university do when it has an alleged sexual assailant on staff and a group of angry students protesting his class? Ludlow’s class was cancelled for the remainder of the quarter, and the Title IX lawsuit was eventually dismissed.

In the fall, Dean of Students Todd Adams announced “a new student conduct process, which applies in cases alleging sexual misconduct by students,” according to an October email from University President Morton Schapiro. He also said Northwestern was going to receive another three-year grant of $300,000 from the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women. According to the email, the grant funds education programs and efforts to engage diverse groups in sexual violence prevention.

At a mid-January meeting, ASG announced that the University will be implementing new Title IX-related updates. The University will hire a Title IX investigator, who will conduct sexual harassment and sexual violence investigations and report to Title IX Coordinator Joan Slavin. For cases that involve faculty respondents, Slavin has been working with the Office of the Provost to design a new faculty discipline process. The University is also developing a new online training process for all faculty, staff and graduate students concerning Title IX, the Violence Against Women Act and sexual harassment.

ASG President Julia Watson says ASG has been lobbying for changes like these. She specifically mentioned training for the Faculty Committee on Cause, which reviews and mediates disputes between members of the Northwestern faculty and administration.

“If you’re deciding the outcomes of somebody who’s been found to be in violation of Title IX, you want to make sure that people who are also listening to those cases actually know Title IX policy, Northwestern policy, federal and state policy,” Watson says.

Weinberg senior Jazz Stephens, an activist involved in the Title IX at NU movement, says we’ll have to wait to see how effective the training is. She says a “five-minute online module” for professors to complete wouldn’t help anyone, for example.

Slavin is working to update the Title IX website with frequently asked questions. Northwestern also plans to send out a student campus climate survey in April. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault is considering making these climate surveys a requirement for all colleges and universities for next year. Northwestern is ahead of the game in that respect, Watson says.

“Some colleges and universities are reporting that they have zero Title IX allegations,” Watson says. “That’s obviously just not the case. It’s completely improbable to say that some of these colleges and universities just aren’t having issues of sexual harassment, sexual assault. I think these survey results will actually start to shed light on the real numbers of what’s going on.”

As far as what’s already been accomplished, Slavin and a deputy coordinator provided in-person Title IX and Violence Against Women Act training for incoming graduate and professional students. This training covers an overview of consent and Northwestern policies, bystander intervention and how to report complaints.

“I actually think [Title IX is] more a slap in the face to know in theory you have these protections. It’s just not being enforced by the school.”

Despite these updates, Director of Legal Studies Laura Beth Nielsen says there are still problems with Title IX hearings, which are conducted by university officials.

“You have a lot of processes at the university level that look something like a criminal process. The idea is that the person who’s being accused has certain rights and that the person who’s doing the accusing has certain protections, but the adjudicator ends up being someone at the university, and they are not necessarily neutral,” she says. “In addition to this particular case, they have all of these university concerns that are in their minds, whether they say they are or not .... The university also has a lot at stake, so putting an employee of the university in that position, while it’s what every university does, may not be the ideal system that you want to set up.”

In other words, no matter what policies or procedures NU enacts, the system is still inherently flawed. Stephens says this problematic system can make survivors hesitant about coming forward.

“Structures at Northwestern enable there to be a lot of sexism, a lot of silencing, a lot of shaming,” she says.

She also says that without enforcement, Title IX is useless.

“I actually think [Title IX is] more a slap in the face to know in theory you have these protections. It’s just not being enforced by the school,” she says. “Yeah, we have [protections] in theory, on paper somewhere. Maybe even on the Internet somewhere. Are we doing anything about it? No.”

Overall, she says Northwestern can do better.

“I think [the University is] not doing as well as it could be, and considering the resources we have, that is unacceptable,” Stephens says. “If we can afford to fill in a part of the Lakefill to avoid land taxes, we should be able to better support survivors.”

Some students have taken action into their own hands to supplement the University’s actions. The Northwestern University College Feminists annually hosts Take Back the Night, which aims to end sexual violence by creating safe communities and respectful relationships through awareness events and initiatives. Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault (MARS) gives presentations on sexual assault, often working with the Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life. Members of SHAPE seek to educate and generate dialogue about health and sexual assault.

Some on-campus resources:
  • Joan Slavin, Title IX Coordinator
  • Sexual Harassment Prevention Office
  • CARE (Center for Awareness, Response, and Education)
  • Women's Center
  • CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services)
  • Alice Millar Chapel and Religious Center (chaplains)
  • “One of the things Title IX says is that the school is supposed to take preventative measures, but I’ve seen less action in that respect,” Seligman says. “It’s a lot harder to say, ‘This is how we handle sexual assault,’ instead of ‘This is how we create a culture that prevents that.’”

    Members of the College Feminists say Title IX protections don’t go far enough, arguing that sexual assault’s illegality won’t prevent it from happening.

    “Rape is very illegal beyond Title IX, and I’m going to go ahead and say that most victims of sexual assault don’t find it comforting that rape’s illegal,” says College Feminists President Elizabeth Böhl. “I don’t think that having Title IX is going to make survivors feel like, ‘I’m going to be believed now.’ I think it’s useful, and I think its something we should utilize, but I don’t think it’s an end-all, be-all.”

    “It’s not going to end rape culture,” Weinberg sophomore Arielle Zimmerman says.

    Seligman believes the disconnect between students and administration could be one cause of the problem. She says part of the solution could be having the two groups work together so it’s not the school versus the students.

    “I think the conversations have to be more ongoing,” Seligman says.

    Communication sophomore Will Altabef, the Public Relations Chair for MARS, agrees that continuing these conversations after freshman year is important. He says that while Northwestern has updated its consent policies and provided resources like CARE and the Women’s Center, upperclassmen need to be made aware of policy changes and new resources.

    “The policies they’re trying to put out there are good,” Altabef says. “Unfortunately it’s how do you get 6,000 older students to read those policies every year? Because obviously they’re going to talk to the freshmen about it every year, but there’s going to be so many older students who might not know what’s changed.”

    As far as sexual assault prevention, the Student Handbook is progressive in its definitions of sexual misconduct. The policy on Sexual Misconduct, Stalking, and Dating and Domestic Violence, which was implemented last January, identifies consent as “the cornerstone of respectful and healthy intimate relationships.” Northwestern’s definition states emphasizing affirmative consent, stating that

    The handbook also touches on the incapacitation standard, stating consent cannot be given when a person is drunk, unconscious, asleep or “otherwise unaware that the sexual activity is occurring.” Northwestern’s sexual misconduct policy also says anyone who engages in sexual activity must be aware of the other person’s level of intoxication. In other words, saying, “I didn’t realize how drunk she was” isn’t an excuse.

    But what about ordinary students who aren’t involved in sexual assault awareness groups? Stephens says Northwestern students are reactionary. She describes the campus atmosphere as possessing an “all-encompassing inertia.”

    “Incidents happen, students rise up and protest, there’s kind of some small gesture toward making the school a better place or safer place for some group of students, and then very little is actually done at the end of say, five, 10 years,” she says.

    She says this type of activism creates a demand for narratives–students who get involved need to hear a compelling story first.

    “We demand to hear these kind of empathy-evoking, sympathy-evoking stories that are supposed to kind of fuel us to be outraged,” she says. “That’s almost how we’re taught to care .... You want to hear that some person walked into some frat and had this horrible experience, and how it affected her and how it impacted her time at Northwestern, and preferably there would be some sort of a gesture toward a happy ending….But it can’t be like, ‘I don’t think that was my fault at all, and I’m fine.’ We don’t want to hear that. We want to hear the struggle, the sadness, the impact.”

    Stephens says we need to start moving forward and having conversations–conversations in which the University needs to be present and vocal.

    “I wish we were talking about more radical conversations. I’m so tired of having the same [conversation], ‘Yes, let’s combat sexual violence,’” she says. “Can that just be a given already? Can we move onto the next step?” Until then, Stephens says, “We’re not going anywhere new .... There needs to be a will to change.”

    Photo by Michael Nowakowski.