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Stanford's new Title IX coordinator focuses on listening, dialogue

A national expert on preventing and resolving cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual misconduct on college campuses has joined Stanford as its new Title IX coordinator. She seeks to engage students and foster dialogue.

As the White House and colleges and universities across the country work to find better ways of addressing sexual assaults on campus, Stanford has hired someone with two decades of deep experience in the field to serve as its new Title IX coordinator.

L.A. CiceroCatherine Criswell

Title IX coordinator Catherine Criswell

Catherine Criswell arrived on the Farm just this week after a 19-year career in the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education, which enforces federal civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination by schools and colleges on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, sex and age. Criswell, a specialist in the areas of sexual harassment and violence, served in a variety of roles including chief attorney and director of OCR's Cleveland regional office, which covers the states of Ohio and Michigan.

Stanford has a range of programs addressing issues of sexual assault and sexual misconduct on campus – including education and prevention programs, resources providing support to students in the wake of an incident and investigative bodies. Criswell will work both to coordinate efforts across campus and to oversee and track the university's investigations of incidents alleged to violate Stanford's Title IX Policy.

Criswell holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Dayton and a JD from Case Western Reserve University School of Law. A mother of two daughters and a poet and runner in her spare time, Criswell sat down with Stanford Report to provide an overview of her new role.

 

Tell us about your background in this area.

OCR enforces a variety of federal civil rights laws, but in my 19 years there I gravitated toward particular areas of the law I was most passionate about – and Title IX, which focuses on sex discrimination in educational institutions, was one of those areas.

I was very involved in overseeing Title IX sexual harassment investigations as well as conducting them myself, so I bring that federal background in Title IX compliance. But in doing that work, I was very focused on learning and development – continually developing our staff's ability to thoroughly and respectfully investigate incidents, as well as to help educational institutions bring about meaningful culture change and create a safe environment for students. What I found is that effectively creating long-term change in this area has to include connecting with and listening to students – and learning from them what steps are necessary to achieve real culture change.

 

Why did you choose to come to Stanford?

I wanted to put my experience and skills to work in a practical, day-to-day setting where I could focus even more intently on innovative programs to help create that lasting culture change around issues of sexual assault and sexual violence. Looking at Stanford's existing resources and commitment to this area as well as the quality of the academic program, I thought, where better to go than one of the premier universities in the nation?

More than that, though, I really felt that Stanford wants to do this right. They're not just doing things because the federal government is saying you have to do them. Stanford – just by virtue of hiring a dedicated Title IX coordinator, as one example – is reflecting its desire to proactively do the right thing for its students. To me, it's an incredibly important mission and mantle of responsibility to help ensure that no student's opportunity to access all the amazing programs and benefits Stanford offers is denied or limited because he or she has been impacted by an incident of sexual harassment or sexual violence. So I am honored and excited to be here.

Of course, I also have to admit that the weather in December will be better than in Cleveland!

 

What does the Title IX coordinator role entail?

Part of my responsibility is to investigate or oversee prompt and equitable investigations of sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints that involve students and to ensure the overall compliance of the university with Title IX. As an investigator, my role is neutral. I'm not an advocate for either side. I bring almost two decades of performing that neutral fact-finding role at OCR – listening to the parties involved, allowing them to provide all the relevant information they have, and helping them be informed throughout the process and to understand the outcome, even if it may not be the outcome they desired.

But a big part of the role also involves outreach, education and communication. It means reaching out to make sure people know their Title IX rights, know what sexual harassment and sexual violence are, know where to go for help. It means facilitating coordination between the various departments and resources available to students who have been involved in or are aware of an issue of sexual harassment or sexual violence. And it means recommending and implementing new actions we should be taking, such as identifying a new area of training that may be beneficial.

I'm really here to be a resource to the entire Stanford community on these issues, but most importantly, to be available and accessible to students for any questions, concerns and ideas they have. I want to have a visible presence in the Stanford community.

 

You've only been here a few days, but can you provide an early sense of some of the things you will be focusing on?

One is to do a campus climate survey, which we are in the process of developing. This also was one of the recommendations from the recent White House task force report. It's also important that we not just do a survey, but that we use the results to inform our future actions and to enhance our policies, practices and programs in this area.

I also want to reach out and meet as many people as possible – students, faculty and staff – and hear from them directly about the climate around these issues at Stanford and about what they would like to see happen. My way of operating is to do a lot of listening and gathering of information, with the goal of recommending any enhancements or changes to ensure we have the best policies and practices. It needs to be an ongoing dialogue throughout the school year, in a way that is non-threatening and engaging and respectful for everyone involved.

And I want to talk to all students. There's not one particular group of students that the Title IX coordinator represents. For example, I'm a big supporter of bystander/upstander training for the prevention of sexual harassment. One of the benefits of bystander training is it helps include everyone as part of the solution to creating a safe and inclusive campus. I'm eager to explore innovative ways of engaging students in education and prevention focused on these extremely important issues of sexual assault and sexual violence.

 

What is the best way for people to contact you?

For now, the best way to reach me is through my email address, titleix@stanford.edu. My telephone number is (650) 497-4955. But I encourage people to come by to talk in person – my office is temporarily located on the garden level of Building 160 in the Main Quad. If you approach Building 160 from the side facing the Inner Quad and follow the sign for the Title IX Office down the exterior stairs, you'll find me.