Content warning: mention of sexual misconduct, assault and harassment
This interview was conducted on Nov. 18 and may not reflect recent developments.
Following a surge of student complaints of sexual misconduct and racial discrimination on social media this past summer, President Sylvia Burwell announced the development of a new office, The Office of Equity and Title IX, on July 2. The Department of Education later enforced new federal Title IX regulations on Aug. 14, which entailed more restrictive definitions of sexual assault and reconfigured case procedures. Now, after being appointed to this inaugural office on Sept. 30, Assistant Vice President for Equity & Title IX Leslie Annexstein is navigating new policies, ideologies and a new community.
The Blackprint sat down with Leslie to introduce her to the student body and to clarify the responsibilities and duties of this new office as students begin to re-enter campus this Spring.
BP: Tell me a little about why the office was developed and why you wanted to be a part of it.
LA: As I understand it, it really was a community effort to decide to have this office. There was a belief held by everyone that there was a need to centralize these issues regarding discrimination, including Title IX. People tend not to see Title IX as an anti-discrimination law but that is what it is. I was attracted to it because it is my belief that all of these issues belong together so that you are looking at them holistically.
The second really important piece is that AU is seeing this as part of the overall Inclusive Excellence priority and for me, that is key because you don’t want to sit these issues to the side of academic issues, looking at curriculum and how you create the educational environment you want. One of the goals of an office like this is that you don’t have different standards around those matters for students, than for faculty, than for staff so that we are all held accountable to the same conduct when it comes to discrimination.
BP: Tell me about your previous experiences doing Title IX work and the insights that you are bringing to this new position.
LA: I’ve been a civil rights lawyer and women’s rights lawyer for most of my profession. My former position at Howard University, which of course is an HBCU, was as the director of the Title IX office. What that meant was that my jurisdiction was over sex and gender discrimination matters. So I did not have authority within my office to address other discrimination matters such as national origin, religion or disability.
Before Howard University I was at the University of Maryland College Park. There I was the deputy director in what they called the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct. So I have a lot of hands-on experience from that office where it did have both Title IX and EEO combined in one office...None of us presents in a single way and when you have an office that handles it all, you’re not slicing people up in a way that feels artificial to them.
What’s exciting about bringing all of this together is really that opportunity to track information centrally and look at what’s happening in order to feed that information into the university’s efforts to better itself.
BP: I heard you say that you didn’t have jurisdiction over matters of national origin, ability and things like that in one of your previous positions, will you have jurisdiction over those matters at AU?
LA: Yes, this position brings all of it together. So, this office will take in complaints and reports of discrimination on all of the bases. I sort of tend to list the bases that are under federal law. There’s also the D.C. human rights law that, frankly, is broader than federal law. So for example, D.C. law covers personal appearance. So that is a basis that individuals could complain about to this administrative office.
BP: The federal government implemented restrictive Federal IX laws in August, how is your office navigating that?
LA: So we have no choice. In order for AU to be in compliance with the Title IX law as the Department of Education has set out, we are required to follow to the letter those regulations. That’s not just AU, it is every college, university and K-12 system in this country that takes federal funds. That does change some of our definitions and it requires a particular procedure when there’s sexual harassment work and there is really no wiggle room within those procedures.
That said, there will be a lot of sexual harassment matters that fall outside of that and those matters will be handled under what’s now called the Discrimination and Non-Title IX Sexual Misconduct Policy. That is the second policy sitting in this office that will handle anything that’s outside of that as well as all of the other discrimination matters.
BP: This summer many students voiced their concerns and experiences with sexual misconduct and racial discrimination at AU over social media. How is your office paying attention to these trends, incorporating community feedback and promoting proactive/cultural work?
LA: I’m certainly aware of what happened before I got here. One, I live in D.C, so I like to stay aware of what’s going on in my city regardless of whether I work in a particular entity or not and because of my own professional background I tend to follow these kinds of issues anyway...The goal is always to lift ourselves out of the reactive work, which we have to do, and get to the proactive work. I have been spending a significant amount of my time actually connecting with student groups, staff groups, faculty groups, because all of those groups are working on these issues in different ways.
The proactive work right now is really the listening, the learning, the connecting and I like to think that in doing all of that I have added the voice of this office where it made sense to add that. I like to think about an office like this and discrimination offices in general as the floor. I’m setting the floor and you cannot go below this floor. So, I think we can do [the proactive work] together, but you’ve got to have a really strong, rock-solid foundation in order to take those next steps.
BP: As students begin to reenter campus this Spring, what are your office’s goals moving forward?
LA: What I really look forward to is being on campus and being able to connect in an even more visible and personal way and being able to better understand the culture of the campus. That is something that is one thing that is very difficult to do virtually, is to really get a sense, what does this community feel like? The one thing I would ask the Blackprint and all of the students who might read what you write or engage with you in any way is to be a partner with this office, to reach out to us, to share your concerns and to share your recommendations.