Title IX accountability check: Pitzer still has a long way to go, task force members say following resignation

The entrance gates of Pitzer College during sunset.
Pitzer College faculty integral to reviewing and revising the school’s Title IX procedures say they feel the school has failed to address students’ needs and significant concerns. (Emma Jensen • The Student Life)

CW: Sexual assault

Last December, a series of student allegations of harassment and abuse shook Pitzer College, spurring calls for a Title IX office overhaul to increase accountability. One year later, some Pitzer community members feel the college has not taken action to prioritize students in Title IX policies, leading to committee resignations amid student and faculty complaints.

Former President Melvin L. Oliver established Pitzer’s Title IX Task Force last December in response to students’ calls for change regarding Title IX policies following administration’s handling of a recent sexual assault case.

Sumangala Bhattacharya, a Pitzer professor of British literature, was a co-chair of the task force with Pitzer’s Chief Operating Officer Laura Troendle. The task force consisted of two chairs, two other faculty, two staff and two students, until Oct. 4 when Bhattacharya resigned as Special Assistant to the President for Title IX.

In a statement to colleagues following her resignation, Bhattacharya spoke to her dismay about the institution’s priorities, calling this academic year’s progress, or lack thereof, “disheartening.” She cited the administration’s focus on “top-down messaging” instead of reviewing and addressing systemic problems as her major concern.

Over the summer, the prevention subcommittee of the task force worked toward action steps that they had shared with the Pitzer community in the spring. Bhattacharya worked with Pitzer economics professor Maya Federman to create a two-page quick reference guide for the internal Discrimination, Harassment and Sexual Misconduct (DHSM) policy and the 5Cs Title IX policy. 

The guide aimed to make dense and long policies more widely accessible, according to Bhattacharya. Both Bhattacharya and Federman also identified “problematic errors” that were in need of correction on Pitzer’s Title IX web page.

Bhattacharya cited a faulty link to the DHSM policy document and incorrect contact information for two complaint officers as the main issues regarding the website.

After presenting her group’s recommendations and guides to Interim President Jill Klein, Bhattacharya said it became clear that Klein was not on the same page regarding the task force’s ongoing work.

“We had intended the guides as a starting point for the real work of making systemic changes — disappointingly, Interim President Klein appeared to feel that there was no more work to be done once those flowcharts were completed,” Bhattacharya said in her letter.

In separate emails to TSL, both Bhattacharya and Federman expressed concern for the administration’s lack of action in improving Title IX processes. Federman told TSL she does not think there has been adequate urgency for making improvements.

“To rebuild trust in the process and to improve functioning, it is crucial to engage with students and community members to learn about their actual experiences, their ideas and concerns,” Federman said. “This has not been happening.”

Bhattacharya highlighted Pitzer’s orientation Title IX training as a source of student concern, which she said was “actively distressing” and resulted in a dozen students walking out because they found it “inappropriate and triggering.”

Alex Arguelles PZ ’24 told TSL his experience as an Orientation Adventure (OA) leader made him feel underwhelmed by Pitzer’s progress in improving its Title IX policies.

Arguelles said he had standard Title IX training prior to starting his role as an OA leader. His concerns about sexual assault education began after the “Speak About It” program came to Pitzer, which Scripps College students criticized earlier this year because a part of the training included detailed first-hand accounts of sexual assault.

“[The training was] a lackluster attempt at making an awkward topic like sexual harassment into some kind of whimsical play, so you could laugh about it and talk about it, but I don’t think it was effective at all,” Arguelles told TSL. “It left the kids with more questions than answers.”

When Arguelles and his fellow OA leaders debriefed the program with their group, he found that students were “completely perplexed.” He was overwhelmed by the task of having to answer heavy questions based on his personal conversations and Title IX training.

“We were absolutely and in no way ready and equipped to give these answers because we’re not professionals, we’re student volunteers,” Arguelles said.

In the October TSL article about the Scripps’ students complaints, Alyssa-Rae McGinn, Pitzer’s Interim Title IX coordinator, claimed Pitzer did not have issues with their sexual assault programs at orientation, and she maintained that sentiment in a recent statement to TSL via email.

“I have not heard any specific complaints about Speak About It’s presentation, although I received some feedback about areas for additional education for Orientation staff in supporting students following the program,” McGinn told TSL.

McGinn and other members of Pitzer’s administration asserted that the college has worked diligently on the task force’s recommendations. 

“[The Title IX task force’s] work last year was integral to gathering the information all of us in the administration of Title IX needed to work toward change, and then implementing measures to make that change,” McGinn said.

In an email to TSL, Pitzer spokesperson Wendy Shattuck provided updates on action steps the task force has taken since October 2022. This work included creating and expanding counseling for survivors, as well as providing financial resources for off-campus counseling. 

Pitzer is also working to find a Senior Director of Office of DHSM, an upcoming on-campus position the college expects to fill by mid-spring semester 2023, according to its Task Force website. McGinn will continue to serve as interim Title IX Coordinator until then.

Despite Pitzer’s claim of working diligently with the task force to execute their recommendations, Bhattacharya and Federman feel that their efforts in the Title IX task force have been neglected.

On Oct. 21, the two professors spoke to the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) about their work on the task force and their concerns about the Pitzer administration, according to Bhattacharya. After the meeting, which Klein attended, the Interim President emailed Bhattacharya and Federman.

“[Bhattacharya’s and Federman] work related to further assessment of the College’s processes related to Title IX and DHSM ceases,” Klein allegedly said in the email according to Bhattacharya. 

Bhattacharya pushed back in her resignation letter.  

“As faculty, we have the academic freedom to continue assessment of the College’s processes related to Title IX and DHSM should we choose to do so,” Bhattacharya said.

Additionally, Bhattacharya said Klein reminded them of their responsibilities as mandatory reporters and accused her of potentially violating mandatory reporting obligations after her resignation from the task force. 

Bhattacharya called the accusation “nonsense” in her statement to her colleagues, adding in her resignation letter that she “feels that these gratuitous ‘reminders’ (threats?) about mandatory reporting obligations were intended to create a chilling effect.”

Klein did not address a direct question from TSL regarding Bhattacharya’s allegations. However, she stood by the actions Pitzer has taken over the last year to address issues of sexual assault on campus.

“Pitzer will continue to implement the recommended new or changed processes as swiftly and fully [as] we can,” Klein told TSL via email. “Only then can we step back to assess our effectiveness in these newly-implemented areas, adjust where necessary, and continue to move forward.”

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