Q&A: Co-chairs of the Provost's Task Force on Sexual Assault Policies and Practices talk about recommendations

M. Elizabeth Magill and Elizabeth Woodson

The co-chairs of the Provost’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Policies and Practices for Stanford are M. Elizabeth Magill, dean and Richard E. Lang Professor at Stanford Law School, and Elizabeth Woodson, a Stanford senior who served as ASSU president. (Image credit: Alexandria Murray/Stanford Law School)

The Provost’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Policies and Practices has issued its recommendations for enhancing Stanford’s approach to preventing and responding to sexual assault, relationship violence and other forms of prohibited conduct at Stanford.

The co-chairs of the task force – M. Elizabeth Magill, dean and Richard E. Lang Professor at Stanford Law School, and Elizabeth Woodson, a Stanford senior just completing her term as ASSU president – talked with Stanford Report about the task force deliberations and some of the key outcomes.

What will the task force recommendations mean for Stanford students?

M. Elizabeth Magill: The structure of the report highlights the major points. It means more education and awareness for the entire campus, a coordinated and focused team providing support to students when there has been an incident of sexual violence, and a simpler and clear investigation and adjudication system that is fundamentally fair for all participants.

Elizabeth Woodson: The recommendations provide us the opportunity to revisit our university values. By integrating these values into our policies, we can ensure a safe and supported campus for all.

We also recognize that it will mean something different to everyone. While I am not in a position to speak on behalf of any individual or community, I feel confident that our recommendations do address what we learned from listening to student needs and experiences. We are looking forward to a productive campus dialogue on our community’s reactions going forward. 

What went into the task force deliberations?

Woodson: We drew on a huge variety of perspectives. We started with a website form last summer where people could share feedback and experiences with the task force, anonymously or otherwise. Starting in the fall, we supplemented that with in-person feedback, which included more than 80 meetings by members of the task force and 10 town halls across campus focused on different communities and specific aspects of our charge. We also reached out to everyone who served on a review panel or participated in a student conduct hearing to receive their feedback, either written or in person.

Everyone on the task force heard from students directly, and we want to acknowledge the difficulty students had in sharing those experiences.  We enlisted a team of law students to research how other universities address this issue. We spoke with alumni. We met with the Faculty Senate. We did our best to hear from everyone, and made ourselves available to anyone who wanted to be heard.

On the committee, every question was thoroughly talked through, and we were able to come to consensus. In October, I didn’t think that would be possible. I believe the consensus we reached is a testament to the urgency of this issue and the dedication of our committee.

Magill: We had 18 people from all parts of the university on this task force, and it is a  diverse group with varied experiences and different points of exposure to the community. Doing what we did to understand and analyze the issues, to hear all that we needed to hear and learn all that we needed to learn, was an intense experience.  Given the issues the provost asked us to take on, it felt to me like we did our work in a remarkably short period of time.  But when you look that intensely at a topic, key things often emerge, as they did here – you start to hear many of the same things again and again – and that helped us reach consensus.

You mentioned the fairness of the investigation and adjudication process. What is built into your proposed process to ensure that fairness?

Magill:  There are many aspects of the process worth noting.  The first is multiple reviewers. In cases where a non-hearing resolution is not an option, the case will go to a hearing where three people will review it. They will be trained, experienced members of our community who hear cases regularly and serve for multiple years. Collective deliberation generally leads to wise judgments. The second is the standard of unanimity for a finding of responsibility for any violation of university policies on prohibited sexual conduct, and also unanimity if the sanction is expulsion in a case of sexual assault. Third, there is an opportunity to review and challenge the evidence that will be considered in the case. And fourth, there is an appeals process, which is another form of the multiple-reviewer principle that ensures the fundamental fairness of the process.

Woodson: I want to emphasize a theme here of heavily and regularly trained individuals throughout our process. I believe that knowledgeable individuals working consistently on this issue are the foundation of a streamlined and equitable process.

The task force recommended that expulsion be the “expected” sanction where a student is found responsible, by a unanimous panel of reviewers, for sexual assault. What is the rationale behind this recommendation?

Magill: The most important thing is to start with the university policy (Admin. Guide 1.7.3.) that defines prohibited sexual conduct. People really should read that policy.  When they do, they will see that sexual assault is defined as sex without consent through violence, force, menace or duress, or by causing someone to be incapacitated or taking advantage of someone who is incapacitated – where incapacity is defined narrowly to be, essentially, where the affected party does not know what is going on around them. This is egregious behavior. One does not accidentally do this.

For that kind of egregious behavior, at the conclusion of a thorough and fair investigative process with the unanimous finding of a panel of reviewers, and the right to appeal, the task force reached consensus that expulsion should be the expected sanction. We also believe any policy should have some flexibility to anticipate unexpected circumstances that may arise, and that is why it is the expected sanction.

Woodson: Absolutely. I want to reiterate what Liz said, about understanding our policy’s definition of sexual assault. That is critical. Understanding that will help clarify how our 18-person committee agreed that such behavior is a violation of our Fundamental Standard and requires a high degree of attention and sanctioning.

The task force also recommended that undergraduate students not serve on review panels. What is the rationale for that recommendation?

Woodson: As an undergraduate myself, I questioned this at first, because it’s my identity and because I acknowledged the argument of having a “jury of your peers.” But we thought about this for months, and it’s from student feedback that we made this decision. Students expect an excellent process. For reviewers, this means consistency, ongoing and in-depth training, and regular panel participation over a multi-year term. It’s challenging for an undergraduate student to make this the focus of their time here, which we will be asking of the faculty and staff members during their terms.  

This is a pilot process that will be evaluated and improved over time, and ultimately, if the pilot is to become permanent, it will need to go through the ASSU for approval, which means a student voice in the final decision.

Magill: We also deliberated about the role of graduate students as members of panels, and we recommended that the provost give it further consideration. Graduate students also have time constraints – they’re teaching, doing fieldwork, working in labs. What they are doing academically is tremendously demanding – they are launching their academic and professional careers – and we do need panel members who have the time to participate in extensive training and regularly hear cases over a period of years. But graduate students also would bring a diversity of experience and are closer to the undergraduate student experience, which are reasons to include them. In the report, we presented the provost with the arguments on both sides.

What about the future, now that your process is complete? How has the process left you feeling about the future of this issue at Stanford?

Woodson: This process was a great reminder of how hard this challenge is, how many variables there are, and how hard it is to get right. Right now there’s no model school that gets it all right, though there’s good in lots of places. We have had task forces at Stanford before, and there have been consistencies throughout these reports that are concerning. Much has changed over the past few decades, but one thing I would not want to hear students ever say again, after these most recent recommendations are put into place, is that our process is confusing or that they’re not able to get the help they need. I think we’re now ready at Stanford, from a systems perspective and from a community perspective, to implement these necessary changes.

Students were upset over the last year, and there were a lot of feelings of mistrust. We acknowledge that and hope this is the beginning of rebuilding that trust. What we’re setting out to achieve is a safe campus, built on respect, that puts student wellbeing as a priority. We feel the recommendations, if followed through, will do that.

Magill:  I applaud the provost for asking a large and diverse group to take a hard look at what we are doing, and to suggest improvements. It is an enormous challenge for an educational institution to prevent and respond to incidents of sexual violence, but we are working toward a system that will do that as well as we can.  I’m proud of what we’ve done.   I look forward to hearing the community’s reaction and seeing how implementation unfolds in the coming months.