Like most, I support the broad aims of Title IX pertaining to gender equity on college campuses. Colleges and the criminal justice system alike have sometimes responded to sexual assault with deplorable laxity. But these issues have nothing to do with the hijacking of Title IX resulting from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights' (OCR) 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter (DCL). I speak from personal experience as a survivor of a Title IX inquisition at the University of Utah, where I’ve been a tenured professor for almost two decades. This is my story about how a Title IX regulatory regime designed to crack down on sexual assault managed to ensnare a professor for telling colleagues about how he proposed to his wife.
As is customary, I was not immediately notified I was facing sexual harassment charges or a Title IX investigation. Instead, in July 2016 the university “consultant” in the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action requested a meeting to discuss an “important and confidential" matter. Initially, my inquisitor refused to tell me I was accused of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. I was fortunately able to obtain the charges in writing only after convincing the Title IX investigator I was out of the state indefinitely and unable to meet in person. The investigator became much more conciliatory once he learned I'd retained counsel immediately after I received the complaint. Most of the accused, particularly students, aren’t so fortunate.
The complaint cited conversations I’d had with three female junior colleagues over drinks and pizza almost 20 years earlier. Our conversations were often raucous (anyone who’s ever had an outing with co-workers might relate.) Though my unnamed accuser was never identified in the Title IX proceedings, it clearly was one of these colleagues. Specifically, I was alleged to have “recounted stories to female faculty members related to your proposal to your wife,” and how I proposed at a gentleman’s club. As this was true, it was the only possible story I could tell about my marriage proposal.
Another complaint, a nebulous allegation of gender discrimination, concerned my reaction to an external review of my department. In a faculty meeting, I said that "I feel vindicated! This is exactly what I've been saying all along!" According to the complaint, I had reacted this way only "because the director or the program [sic] is a woman." My department head is indeed a woman. If my department head had been a man, would I have been accused of misandry?
I’d had other conflicts with my university and my initial suspicion was that the university was resorting to new means of hassling me. At that time I was unaware of national opposition to the DCL spearheaded by organizations like Families Advocating for Campus Equality and FIRE, and supported by some 28 faculty members at Harvard Law School and documented by Northwestern University’s Laura Kipnis (one Harvard Law scholar interviewed me recently for a Title IX exposé). But to a considerable extent, the Title IX crisis had flown under the radar due to campus procedures enjoining the accused from discussing Title IX allegations, as well as the justified fear of public condemnation.
I was investigated for four months, but had retained capable counsel and wasn’t unduly worried about the possibility of a guilty finding. The price I paid can be measured in my time drafting memos and the $14,000 I incurred in attorney’s fees. The taxpayers also paid my university inquisitor and inconvenienced 12 of my colleagues in the course of investigating me. The charges were dismissed without a formal hearing. The fact that I had the funds to pay for a top-drawer defense attorney undoubtedly ensured my exoneration.
The University of Utah is not entirely at fault for wasting so much time and money on a frivolous complaint. The 2011 DCL threatens schools with extensive and costly compliance reviews if they don’t vigorously pursue Title IX cases. The OCR also publishes a list of colleges and universities accused of mishandling Title IX cases prior to any finding of wrongdoing. Schools therefore have strong incentive to pursue every case brought to their attention no matter how flimsy.
The pursuit of frivolous Title IX cases like mine is an insult to victims of genuine sexual violence. These cases merit decisive action in the criminal justice system, not in university tribunals poorly equipped to balance effective prosecution that protects the rights of all involved.
Nicholas H. Wolfinger is professor of family and consumer studies and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Utah. His most recent book is "Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos" (with W. Bradford Wilcox; Oxford University Press, 2016). Follow him on Twitter at @NickWolfinger.