Offices and Agencies Enforcing College and University Title IX Obligations

A college or university student or employee charged with sexual misconduct or involved in another misconduct case may promptly face a confusing array of offices and agencies. The student or employee may also confuse the investigatory or prosecutorial role and responsibility of personnel from those offices, to the accused's substantial detriment. Mistaking an enemy for a friend, or a friend for an enemy, can quickly undermine an accused's defense to false or exaggerated charges. Knowing the involved offices and agencies helps distinguish foe from friend, increasing the accused's probability of a favorable outcome.

Three Big Players in Sexual-Misconduct Charges

Three main players with whom a college or university student or employee facing sexual-misconduct charges may deal include college or university Offices of Institutional Equity (OIE), the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR), and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). These three offices and agencies often go by the acronyms OIE, OCR, and EEOC. The first, the OIE, is the creation of the college or university. The latter two, OCR and EEOC, are federal agencies. In brief, the roles and relationships of these offices and agencies are as follows.

Federal regulations charge the Office of Civil Rights with enforcing the federal law Title IX prohibiting sex discrimination in education. The OCR's charge means that a student victim of Title IX sexual misconduct could complain to one of the regional Offices of Civil Rights, which could take enforcement action. Yet federal law imposes Title IX obligations directly on colleges and universities, which carry out those obligations through their own Offices of Institutional Equity. So, in effect, college and university OIEs address and resolve the vast majority of Title IX sexual-misconduct charges, with a regional OCR office ready to look over the OIE's shoulder in the event of institutional failures.

By contrast, federal regulations charge the independent federal agency Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with enforcing the federal law Title VII prohibiting certain forms of discrimination in employment, not in education. The EEOC's charge means that a college or university employee, including a student employee, who claims sex discrimination or sexual harassment (or other forms of unlawful discrimination) in employment may file an administrative complaint with the EEOC. Once again, though, colleges and universities have their own obligation to comply with Title VII, not so much at the risk of losing federal funding but instead at the risk of civil liability to the employee for employment discrimination. A college or university OIE or similar office within the institution will take and attempt to address complaints of employment discrimination so that they do not reach the EEOC or lead to civil liability.

Another federal agency, the Department of Justice's Coordination and Compliance Section, coordinates federal enforcement of Title VII employment rights and Title IX educational rights, serving as a go-between for the OCR and EEOC in appropriate cases involving both student and employee rights. Next, let's consider more detail about each office and the concerns their actions or inactions may raise for college and university students and employees involved in accusations of Title IX or other misconduct.

What Is an Office of Institutional Equity?

College and university Offices of Institutional Equity, sometimes bearing similar names like an Office of Inclusion and Equity, carry out federal Title IX mandates while furthering other institutional interests around inclusion, non-discrimination, and diversity. With millions of dollars in federal funding at stake, colleges and universities devote substantial funding and attention to their Offices of Inclusion and Equity, which also carry out compliance reporting. Consider these example mission statements of prominent Offices of Institutional Equity:

  • The University of Michigan describes its Office of Institutional Equity as “a vital resource and leader in promoting and furthering the University's commitment to diversity and equal opportunity for all members of its community.” It offers “many resources that foster and support an environment on campus that is inclusive, respectful and free from discrimination and harassment.”;
  • The University of Memphis describes its Office for Institutional Equity as “committed to fostering an environment that is reflective of our community. The City of Memphis has a long and proud legacy of commitment to equity for all and OIE honors that legacy by creating an inclusive, accessible, and diverse intellectual and cultural campus experience.”;
  • Indiana University describes its Office of Institutional Equity's mission “to protect the rights of each individual and to ensure their equal access in all aspects of employment, education, and participation within the university.” Office personnel “investigate and respond to complaints of discrimination and harassment against IU faculty, staff, and students,” “[p]rovide information, consultation, and training regarding diversity, equity, equal opportunity, disability awareness, Title IX, and discrimination and harassment prevention,” “[m]onitor the university's affirmative action and equal opportunity employment practices,” and “[c]oordinate the university's compliance with its” non-discrimination policies;
  • The University of Arizona states that the “objective fact-finders” within its Office of Institutional Equity support “efforts to uphold the University's commitment to creating and maintaining a working and learning environment that is inclusive and free of discriminatory conduct as required by the University's Nondiscrimination and Anti-harassment Policy”;
  • Duke University states that its Office for Institutional Equity “provides institutional leadership in enhancing respectful, diverse, and inclusive work and learning environments for the Duke community” by offering “a range of services that uphold values of equity and diversity as well as support compliance efforts in the areas of equal opportunity, affirmative action, and harassment prevention.”

While their Title IX focus is on sexual misconduct affecting educational rights, Offices of Institutional Equity at many institutions also handle Title VII employment rights complaints from college and university employees. The University of Notre Dame's Office of Institutional Equity is an example of dual enforcement responsibilities as to both educational and employment rights. Other institutions, like Boston University, have separate Equal Employment Opportunity Offices.

What Concerns Do Offices of Institutional Equity Raise?

Offices of Institutional Equity can raise significant concerns for students whom colleges or universities accuse of Title IX or other misconduct. In their best form, Offices of Institutional Equity fairly and proactively address serious issues of sexual, racial, and other forms of unlawful discrimination. The earnest efforts of skilled and committed Office of Institutional Equity personnel, especially the Office's designated Title IX coordinator, at many institutions have made significant contributions to the health, safety, and welfare of students and other members of the educational community while increasing access and success for all students.

In worst form, an Office of Institutional Equity's agenda-driven personnel may unfairly credit and facilitate fabricated or exaggerated misconduct charges to advance affinity agendas, harming wrongly accused students and the educational community. Duke University's lacrosse-team scandal, in which a local prosecutor and university students, faculty members, and administrators wrongly accused innocent student-athletes of rape, exemplifies how putting ideology before innocence can destroy individual lives and harm communities.

Offices of Institutional Equity are like other offices charged to carry out serious public obligations. At times, they will do so appropriately, even sensitively, and not just to their primary constituents, which in this instance might be victims of real discrimination, but also to others whom their actions may unfairly affect, such as the innocent student wrongly accused of discriminatory misconduct. At other times, though, Offices carry forward their agendas to justify their existence, presuming guilt rather than innocence, where guilt found, whether warranted or not, will increase the profile, funding, and respect for the Office.

What Is an Office of Civil Rights?

The U.S. Department of Education administers vast federal funding of public and private colleges and universities across the country. Because Congress conditions federal funding on Title IX compliance, the Department of Education relies on its Office for Civil Rights to ensure that colleges and universities are meeting their Title IX obligations. The OCR does so through regional offices in major metropolitan areas, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

OCR regional offices allocate some personnel and funding to investigating individual complaints of Title IX violations on campus. As the OCR Title IX web page states, “OCR evaluates, investigates, and resolves complaints alleging sex discrimination.” Yet the OCR devotes broader efforts to what its same Title IX web page calls compliance reviews “to examine potential systemic violations based on sources of information other than complaints.”

In other words, the OCR keeps pressure on colleges and universities to enforce Title IX aggressively. The OCR can threaten compliance reviews, serve notice of Title IX violations, and then seek sanctions including seeking termination of federal funding or referring to the Department of Justice for enforcement action. The OCR need not have an individual complainant to investigate a college or university. Public or private reports of lax enforcement may be enough to trigger OCR investigation. The OCR also provides schools with technical assistance in identifying and remedying Title IX violations.

What Concerns Does the Office of Civil Rights Raise?

The OCR's role raises significant concerns for students whom colleges and universities falsely accuse of Title IX or related misconduct. Because OCRs have limited funding and personnel to investigate individual Title IX complaints, relying instead on college and university OIEs to do so, OCRs tend to select individual cases based on enforcement value.

An OCR may thus especially take a case to make an example out of severe sanction of an institution for failing to protect the victim and remedy the violation by swift and severe punishment of the offending student or employee. If enforcement is rare and precious, then the OCR wants the most bang for its proverbial enforcement buck. It wants to win quickly, win big, and go home. That interest can lead to over-aggressive and insensitive prosecutions, bent more on a big press release than meaningful and balanced justice.

What Is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission?

The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission is an independent federal agency that Congress has charged with the administrative and judicial enforcement of the federal anti-discrimination and employment-rights laws. The EEOC takes complaints from employees and applicants for employment with private employers, state and local governments, and public and private educational institutions. The EEOC also provides employers, labor organizations, and employment agencies with education and technical assistance.

The EEOC thus does not deal with student educational matters. It may, on the other hand, take action on behalf of college and university employees, including student employees. It may also take action on behalf of an employee involving sexual or other misconduct by members of the college or university community, including co-workers and students, that affect federal anti-discrimination employment rights.

The EEOC has no appreciable direct role in Title IX cases, given that its authority lies in enforcing Title VII employment rights rather than Title IX educational rights. In some cases, though, a student-sexual-misconduct case under the OCR's Title IX educational-rights jurisdiction can also involve employee rights under the EEOC's Title VII employment-rights jurisdiction, such as if a student is charged with sexual misconduct adversely affecting the institution's employee or employees. In that case, the student may see coordinated investigation and enforcement actions by both the OCR and EEOC, or more likely, Title VII and Title IX investigation and enforcement by the institution's own OIE.

Employees wishing to file a federal lawsuit for violation of their Title VII rights must first obtain an EEOC right-to-sue letter, following the employee's EEOC administrative complaint. The EEOC follows administrative procedures generally requiring investigation within 180 days of the complaint. However, the EEOC may extend that period. The EEOC, like any government agency, also has limited resources for investigating individual complaints. EEOC procedures thus permit complainants to request a right-to-sue letter without waiting for EEOC investigation, which may be late in coming and non-exhaustive.

What Concerns Does the EEOC Raise?

The EEOC in Title VII cases, like the OCR in Title IX cases, devotes its limited resources to pursuing cases with higher enforcement value. That interest means the EEOC chooses winnable cases that have broader public impacts discouraging other employers from unlawful employment discrimination. EEOC officials make press releases of their cases for that public-education purpose, often at the time the EEOC files charges, well before any finding that the institution has committed unlawful discrimination.

Given the high public recognition of the EEOC and its federal-government status, and the EEOC's selective enforcement focusing on winnable and impactful cases, EEOC involvement in a college or university Title VII employment case can significantly benefit the complaining employee or employees. Institutions may settle once the EEOC shows a willingness to proceed aggressively. A college or university wishing to settle an EEOC charge may be unwilling to provide substantial defense rights and procedures to a student whose alleged misconduct fueled the EEOC complaint.

Skilled Counsel Helps Deal with Offices and Agencies

The involvement of OIEs, the OCR, and the EEOC plainly complicates the accused student's matter. While, in theory, offices and agencies have educational, technical-assistance, and dispute-resolution roles, they also have their own responsibilities, budgets, and personnel, and thus their own agendas. Those agendas can look to an accused student or employee like a presumption and preference for guilt over innocence. Students and employees are not used to dealing with sophisticated offices and agencies with their own agendas.

The seeming presumption of guilt that those offices and agencies can reflect is exactly where national academic attorney Joseph Lento's expert representation makes a difference. Attorney Lento knows how to use administrative procedures and office and agency protocols to restore the balance of rights between the alleged victim and the accused student or employee. Attorney Lento can also guide the client through the investigation process while handling communications with the offices and agencies, relieving the client from the risk of self-incrimination and misunderstandings over office and agency roles and agendas.

College and university students and employees involved in Title IX or other misconduct matters should be cautious communicating with the institution's offices and federal agencies that ensure those offices are enforcing federal law. Don't enter the administrative fray misunderstanding the roles and responsibilities of these offices and agencies and their personnel. Better that national academic attorney Joseph Lento handles communications and relationships with those offices and agencies.

Get the Help of a Premier National Academic Attorney

National academic attorney Joseph D. Lento has made saving the careers of college and university students and employees his nationwide practice. He knows how to navigate and leverage complex institutional procedures while managing complex office and agency relationships for the best possible outcome.

Your education, employment, and future require aggressive defense to misconduct charges and any other claimed issues. Retain national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento for premier representation, including strategic approaches backed by trial-lawyer skills. Attorney Joseph D. Lento knows how to appropriately push back against over-aggressive offices and agencies, holding them accountable and ensuring fair findings after due procedures. Thousands of students and employees nationwide have trusted attorney Joseph Lento to successfully defend against misconduct charges. Call 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation, or use the Lento Law Firm's online service.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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