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'A Breaking Point' 

Cal Poly Humboldt Academic Senate addresses president's Title IX remarks

Tom Jackson Jr.

Submitted

Tom Jackson Jr.

On Nov. 14, the Cal Poly Humboldt Academic Senate officially sent university President Tom Jackson Jr. a resolution it had passed unanimously a week prior in support of sexual assault survivors and noting his recent comments have "led to additional harm and a feeling of distrust."

The Nov. 8 resolution is the latest fallout from Jackson's remarks during his fall welcome address in August, when he talked about Title IX — the landmark federal law aimed at ending institutional discrimination that, in part, lays out the minimum requirements for educational institutions responding to reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment — as though it was intended to silence survivors. The resolution came a day after Jackson apologized in a personal message sent by email to staff and students, saying his remarks almost three months earlier were intended to "illustrate the complexity" of confidentiality laws related to investigations but "failed in articulating (his) true message of support."

But numerous faculty members have indicated they did not feel the remarks were a matter of clumsy wording or something being taken out of context, and the Academic Senate resolution took aim at one of Jackson's specific statements during the welcome address that many felt prioritized protecting the university's reputation over standing up for survivors or empowering them to own their stories, whether or not they choose to share them publicly.

"The [Title IX] process is designed to be behind the door so that we can resolve it for the individuals that are involved, not celebrate it or promote it for personal gain later on," Jackson said in the address. "I hate being in the news because we have so many positive things happening on our campus. And each time we take a nip at our university, it is read by the very students and parents we want to come to this university. So we're shooting ourselves in the foot."

The resolution, which begins with a simple statement that the Senate "believes survivors when they report harm," goes on to quote this passage of Jackson's remarks.

"We believe that when survivors go public after feeling failed by the Title IX process, even in the face of potential negative personal outcomes from doing so, they are not doing so for personal gain or to take 'nips' at the university but instead, insisting that the university live up to its promise while navigating a situation where they may not feel empowered," it states.

The resolution goes on to state the Senate will work to develop support and reporting structures for the campus community that are "survivor centered" and demands "that this campus do better."

The Senate's criticism of its president comes as the California State University system is conducting a systemwide assessment of its Title IX programs that includes reviews of all 23 campuses' policies and programs, with third-party investigators due to come to Cal Poly Humboldt Dec. 6 through Dec. 8 to speak with students, faculty and staff.

Jackson's Apology

Coming a day before the Senate's vote on the resolution, Jackson message stated he'd heard from many students, staff and faculty that his "choice of words" had been "perceived differently" than he intended.

"My goal had been to illustrate the complexity of laws and policies regarding confidentiality and privacy and to stress that the campus was obligated to abide by these laws and policies while managing Title IX investigations," he wrote. "I referred to these as 'secrets' and I now understand that many who have been harmed by the misconduct of others heard this as my not caring or as the campus seeking to hide these incidents to protect its image. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Jackson's apology did not address his assertions during the Fall Welcome event that Title IX is intended to "solve" incidents of harassment or sexualized violence in an "amicable way," nor that survivors talk publicly of their Title IX cases "to celebrate it or promote it or use it for personal gain."

Accompanying Jackson's apology in the campus wide email was a letter co-signed by Jackson and leaders of Associated Students, Staff Council and the University Senate detailing the university's efforts to improve its Title IX investigation process. The letter notes the university has increased staffing in its Title IX Office from one person to three in recent years, and has followed expert recommendations to change its investigative processes.

"We will soon be adding additional staffing in the Title IX Office to ensure we can continue to be supportive and responsive when incidents and complaints are brought to our attention," the letter notes, asking for "patience, understanding and grace" for those on campus working daily on these efforts. "They are working to overcome significant past inertia and historical challenges."

In a follow up email to the Journal responding to questions submitted to the university's marketing and communications office, Title IX Coordinator David Hickcox said the university is still in the process of determining what additional staffing will be provided to the office though "campus leadership is committed to allocating additional resources." He said the administration will work closely with Title IX Office staff and get feedback from stakeholder groups to "determine the best allocation of committed resources."

Jackson's Nov. 7 apology and the accompanying letter from campus leaders came less than two weeks after the Journal published an Oct. 27 cover story, "Jadence Clifton Comes Forward," juxtaposing Jackson's welcome address comments with the story of a former Cal Poly student who transferred after reporting she had been sexually battered during a women's basketball practice last year and growing to feel the university's Title IX process was not doing enough to protect her. The story quoted a renowned Title IX attorney as saying Jackson's comments about Title IX were "completely erroneous," revealed him to be "not qualified for leadership in higher education" and that he should be "removed from his position."

'Culture of Silence'

Like the letter from campus leaders, the Academic Senate's resolution also acknowledged the "historical underresourcing of and inadequate attention" to Title IX structures and processes. Coupled with Jackson's recent comments, the Senate charged that has led to a feeling of distrust, "which may lead survivors to choose not to report harm out of concern for retaliation or a belief that nothing would come from reporting."

Before the Academic Senate took up the resolution at the end of its meeting, its "open forum" period was filled with members of the campus community responding to Jackson's comments and the campus' Title IX response generally, including one speaker who read an open letter to Clifton.

One faculty member said she'd been advised by colleagues not to speak at the meeting because they feared she'd face retaliation, saying she doesn't have the benefit of "tenure or retreat rights," a reference to former Dean John Lee, who was the subject of an USA Today investigative report earlier this year. Lee, USA Today reported, had been fired from his administrative role after a campus investigation found he'd groped two colleagues but was allowed to return to his teaching position with an annual salary of $154,000 under a "retreat" clause in his contract. Despite fears of retaliation, the faculty member said she felt compelled to speak, calling Jackson's comments "disturbing and completely out of line" and saying she "felt really harmed by what was being said."

"These comments were not taken out of context and they were not misunderstood," she said. "Addressing the culture of silence and harm should be this university's No. 1 priority. The president's remarks were shameful."

Professor Maxwell Schnurer, who chairs the Department of Communication and co-chairs the university's Sexual Assault Prevention Committee, then read from prepared remarks, saying he wanted to address the "three most common misunderstandings about sexualized violence."

The first, he said, is that it's rare, noting approximately one in four students who attend university will be harmed by sexualized violence as students. 

"The Safer Campus Surveys in 2012, 2015, 2020 all affirm that statistics are consistent for Humboldt," he said. "In 2020, 66 students reported that someone had committed sex acts on them when they were drunk, drugged or passed out. Thirty-eight students reported that their partner made threats to physically harm them or someone they love. One-hundred students reported that someone made nonconsensual sexual contact with them. Literally hundreds of students are harmed every year at Humboldt and the current climate is icy cold for those people. The cases reported in the media are not the exception, but are the tip of an iceberg."

The second misconception Schnurer addressed was the notion that false reports are common, noting FBI statistics indicate fewer than one in 100 reports are false. Third, he said Title IX is "not a behind-the-scenes or closed-door process intended to pit survivor against perpetrator or resolve stalking or rape amicably," but a set of laws that prohibit gender-based discrimination and require universities to work to prevent and respond to sexualized violence.

Schnurer then asked everyone watching to put the Campus Advocate Team confidential phone number — (707) 445-2881 — in their phones so they'd have it if approached by a survivor, saying the hotline will provide support people ready to accompany survivors to the hospital, connect them with counseling or explain options while holding confidentiality.

"You may not need it, but be prepared to be a good friend and Humboldt community member by being ready to smoothly bridge a survivor to the resources they deserve," he said. "We know that people are harmed, and they don't make it up and we know that they need support. The painful lack of adequate response to high-profile cases has set our campus back by a decade in necessary work. Cal Poly Humboldt should be prepared to do better."

'A Breaking Point'

Later in the open forum period, School of Education Department Chair Libbi Miller said in the coming spring semester Lee will be returning to his teaching role in her department, teaching administrative credential, masters of art in education and liberal studies elementary education courses. Noting she "did not make these decisions," Miller said she currently has students asking for alternative courses to take.

"I don't have them," Miller said, saying she scoured course catalogs looking for things that match the requirements and can be substituted but they don't exist. She said she has students who are survivors and wants desperately to give them survivor-centered options.

"And I don't have them," Miller said.

Loren Cannon, an environmental studies lecturer, said he prepared comments to share at the meeting but threw them out "because they are not any good."

"Is President Jackson with us today?" he asked, hearing in response that he was not there in person or attending virtually.

Cannon then said there are times when all of us don't "obtain the kind of behavior" we strive for, when we fall short. What's really relevant, he said, is how we respond afterward.

"Does that person seek to have a real dialogue? Does that person really and transparently show they care?" he asked, before saying he knows "probably a dozen people" who felt Jackson's welcome address comments were directed at them. "This is a culture of fear."

Trust, Cannon said, is a really important thing, noting he wants to trust his bosses.

"The stuff that is in USA Today and the North Coast Journal is the tip of the iceberg as far as what's going on on our campus, but it's also a symptom of not caring about the people who learn and work on this campus," he said. "We need some real change here and the fact that he's not here to listen to us — I would say it disappoints me but I didn't really expect it. That's all I have to say. We are at a breaking point."

news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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