Former Dean of Students wonders ‘How much damage have my colleagues and I done?’

Last month, former Dean of Students Lee Burdette Williams wrote a piece on her own Medium page about a weekend that changed her life back in 2016. Williams says she was invited to a weekend gathering by a group she had never heard of before called FACE. Essentially it was a group composed of parents whose sons had been accused of sexual assault on a college campus. But these parents believed their kids were being badly abused by a system that didn’t seem to have any place for the kind of rights of the accused found in our justice system.

After checking the group out, Williams flew from Vermont to Arizona for the weekend gathering. She had hopes that hearing from someone who’d worked as a Dean of Students would give parents a different perspective on what was happening to their kids. Instead, it was Williams who gradually found herself adopting a different perspective. It started when she approached two women at a meet and greet by the pool:

Their son was a student at a fairly selective university (they did not tell me which one). He had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman with whom he had a relationship that had recently ended. He was initially found not responsible, but she appealed, something the school had only recently decided to allow. He was then found responsible and expelled, in the middle of his senior year. Hesitant to salt their obviously still-open wound, I tentatively asked, “What was different about the second hearing?”

Eileen answered quickly. “We don’t know, and neither does our son, because he wasn’t allowed access to the second set of case files.”

“That’s not right,” I said.

“We didn’t think so, so we’ve hired a lawyer, but he’s already missed too much school to graduate. And he’s not sure he wants to go back. We found FACE when we started looking online for help.”

The next morning Williams listened to a lecture by Cathy Young that further shook her confidence. That was followed by a sharing session where people told their stories of being accused of sexual misconduct:

The stories being shared by these family members would have made great content for either a reporter or a campus advocate to exploit. But that wasn’t the purpose of this sharing. Here, I realized, these families found a community of similarly frustrated and angry parents. Those for whom this was their first meet-and-greet spoke about their sons’ campus encounters, and after a few stories, some themes emerged. The first was that the woman involved was either a former girlfriend, emotionally unstable, manipulated by others, or some combination of these. The second: campus administrators were either indifferent to their son’s version of events, hostile and deceitful, completely incompetent, or again, a combination of these.

Several parents broke down in tears while describing months, or in some cases years, of hearings, attorneys, suspensions, expulsions, the costs of therapy and inpatient stays for now-suicidal sons, and at the heart of it, a complete loss of any faith in the competence or compassion of senior campus administrators, like, say, a dean of students.

Eventually it was Williams’ turn to speak and, despite the dawning awareness that her prepared remarks were not going to be liked by a lot of the audience, she somehow convinced herself it would all work out fine. But it didn’t:

Anyone who has ever spoken in front of an audience knows that the brain is capable of maintaining a dialogue of its own, separate from what the speaker is saying. It’s the voice that picks up clues from a potentially disruptive audience member, the voice that reminds you that you need to change slides. In this case, the internal voice providing play-by-play for me said, “They are not buying it, sister. Wrap it up and get out of here.” But any speaker will also tell you that once you’re on that dais, reading your carefully-written remarks, listening to the sound of your own (actual) voice, you silence your more rational friend and continue.

That is, until someone in the audience shouts at you, which is what happened. “You don’t get it at all, do you?” yelled a man from the middle of the room. I stopped, the sound of a needle being pulled across vinyl in my head. I didn’t respond to him, just blinked, looked back to the podium and continued. I didn’t have a lot of experience with hecklers, but guessed it was best to just ignore him.

“How can you defend yourself? Do you even know what you’re talking about?” he shouted again. Others shushed him and he turned on them. “Why do we have to sit and listen to someone defend the very people who have destroyed our sons’ lives.”

She got through the rest of her speech but then she had to take questions for a Q&A. The only question she remembers came from one of the accused young men: “Have you ever made a decision that ended up ruining someone’s life?” After a long pause, Williams agreed that she probably had at some point.

In a lightly revised version of the piece published last week by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Williams describes being left with an uncomfortable thought that seems to have stemmed from that question:

When I wrote “The Dean of Sexual Assault,” in 2015, I believed that higher-ed professionals occupied a moral high ground in the war against sexual assault. My weekend in Phoenix challenged all of that. I now find myself wondering: How much damage have my colleagues and I done?

It’s a good question and the answer is probably quite a bit. The Trump administration’s changes to guidance governing Title IX investigations on campus was an improvement but one the Biden administration has vowed to undo. In April the administration began soliciting advise on changing those guidelines back. Virtual public hearings on the topic were held last week.

In recent years, however, courts have quarreled with colleges’ verdicts. More than 500 accused students have filed lawsuits against their colleges in the last decade. Just over half of the court cases ruled in favor of the students.

Despite this clear record of incompetence from campus kangaroo courts, it appears the Biden administration is going to keep pushing for a return to something like the previous guidance.

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