Wake up to the grim state of Title IX

By Abigail Fergus

A year ago when I learned that Nick Piccolo, former vice president for student life and Title IX coordinator, was retiring I became anxious. Piccolo had become an important mentor to me as he provided me with wisdom and sanity. He would no longer be a resource on campus every day. I also saw opportunity in his job opening.

I’ve written in the Almanian before about how overseeing all student affairs and Title IX cases is not a one person job, no matter how much Piccolo cared or tried– which was a lot.

I called Piccolo the other day, after I learned that Lynn Krauss is no longer Title IX Coordinator, a position she held for less than a full school year. Administration had been searching to replace Piccolo with full-time personnel, but she asked to be on campus twice a week and her request was granted. Krauss told me in the fall of 2017, on the record for an Almanian interview, that she accepted the title because she was looking for any way to work for her alma mater as a retirement job.

I was angry that the situation so quickly failed, because I had warned President Abernathy that the job should be full-time and that student input should be a part of the hiring process.

We also have a startling lesson, from MSU’s former president and former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar, about the state of Title IX enforcement. Abernathy claimed that he would put me on the search committee for the Title IX coordinator, but I came back to school last fall to find that Krauss had been hired with no apparent say from students.

I knew Piccolo would listen to me, respect me and offer sound advice– all without having a single negative thing to say about any person involved with Title IX at Alma. I’ve written before about how that kind of treatment isn’t something that I’ve gotten from most administrators.

When I experienced members of administration rolling their eyes at me, sending me passive aggressive emails, or failing to follow through on their claims and to respond to student concerns, it was at times when I was advocating for student interests. So I didn’t feel bad then, except for the occasional battle with anxiety, because I was just in my cause. I simply wanted to be safe and informed while I got the education for which I am now $28,000 dollars in debt.

All the while it felt like men on campus could get away with the harassment and assault that is no secret to students and that I was fighting against, then in the daylight still be perfect pupils in administrators’ eyes.

My mental health was in such a dark state from the beginning of 2017 until I left Alma’s campus last December as a graduate, that the year has become a fog.

Usually, I have a keen memory, but it’s hard to put the dark pieces of 2017 together. Some of the greatest experiences were given to me in that year, but they were also shrouded by the depressive state I was in.

I moved up to northern Wisconsin on New Year’s Day, where I had been for a P-Global this past summer. I had a disturbing revelation soon after. I was making dinner with my friend Devon. She’s a few years older than me, she works for the Ojibwe tribe I came up here to research with, and she took me in during my P-Global. Devon shared, after we had a lot of laughs and silliness, that I was distant and almost unfriendly this past summer.

Her statement threw me into a rare, vivid memory of 2017. I was numb and scared in Wisconsin this past summer. I was able to fulfill my responsibilities robotically, but I didn’t feel what I was doing. I didn’t act like myself. I didn’t laugh with Devon. I had nervous break downs.

Once I had to leave the tribal office early to spend the second half of the day crying at my campsite. I can’t paint the depth of my dread at the end of my P-Global when I faced returning to Alma for my last semester.

Alma College wore me down to the bone. I enrolled as a naïve and anxious teenager and was spat out as a deeply depressed and cynical adult. It’s a testament to the love of my friends and close professors that I finished out with a senior thesis complete and a track toward graduate school begun.

Once I moved away from everyone I ever knew this past December, the dust of 2017 and of college settled. I began to pick through what I had grown numb to out of self defense in my waking and sleeping nightmares.

A lot of what I have had to decompress from has been my experience working toward a campus community safe from assault and harassment.

My intersections of privilege are many and my intersections of oppression are few. I’m white, cis-gender, raised Christian, middle class. I use this to put into perspective what others are going through.

I’ve been harassed and groped. Men have tried to coerce me. But I’ve never been raped. I measure the weight that has dragged me through the benthos of shame, fear, anxiety, rage, confusion and pain and I imagine the boulder that drags people who carry more intersections of oppression.

This is why I have to try to address Title IX issues and this is why those with even less intersections of oppression and more of privilege ought to be at work too.

I don’t regret my actions as a student or an alum to demand Title IX reform and education that protects likely victim-survivors instead of likely perpetrators. I do regret what has been outside of my power to change: the handling of Title IX by the nation, by Alma’s administration, and by many of my peers. On a national scale, Title IX has been a mess (even before Betsy DeVos in all of her incompetency took the role as secretary of education). Since April 2011, when the Department of Justice began collecting reports of college and universities showing poor conduct in handling Title IX complaints, 458 investigations have been opened and only 121 cases have been resolved (https://projects.chronicle.com/titleix/). Alma College is one of those cases as of October 20, 2015. Perhaps Alma will be one of the 17 cases that will be closed this year, based on the DOJ’s track record of resolving an average of 17 annually, but that’s not what your hopes should be pegged on. Your hopes also shouldn’t be pegged on an angry, recent alum writing to the Almanian (in part because the school is choosing not to hire back Advisor Ken Tabacsko, the only person with career experience in journalism at this institution). Your hopes shouldn’t be pegged on the involved students who have been advocating for Title IX transparency through groups like VEE Club and MacCurdy, not only because many of them are graduating, but also because many of them are likely or actual victim-survivors.

You shouldn’t save your action until you find assault and harassment has devastated your life or that of a loved one. You shouldn’t peg your hopes on Alma’s administration, because they occasionally take student input regarding Title IX, but don’t seem to hear it. This past fall, at what was supposed to be a panel for students to ask questions, the conversation was largely steered by the lens that our president and vice presidents prefer to see Title IX through. You should peg your hopes on yourself, especially if you have privilege to give your concerns regarding Title IX a louder voice.

Alma College relies heavily on athletes and Greek Life for funding in order to stay afloat. Not only do members of these two entities make up a large and wealthy portion of the student body, but the Board of Trustees is very interested in and connected to these groups. When I served as secretary for Student Congress, board members quickly breezed past me once they learned I had no interest in either. Aside from student tuition, the Board of Trustees is responsible for Alma’s funding and existence. So athletics and Greek Life are what talks to Alma’s administrators, because that’s where the money is.

Members of these groups should keep that in mind and get involved, rather than begrudgingly sit through required annual Title IX training that often goes in one ear and out the other. If you have a different idea of what topics or what ways you want to learn about Title IX, make that known to Anne Lambrecht. If you feel policy at Alma is not conducive to holding yourself and others to building a safe community, make that known to Abernathy. Do anything besides sitting in SAGA and whining about it to your friends. It doesn’t take much extra effort, and it feels better than complaining without action.

There was positive momentum toward more involvement with Title IX in the fall semester. Fraternity members willingly showed up to the forum hosted by administration and to a couple of VEE club meetings. Administration hosted a Title IX event, rather than leaving education, beyond what’s federally mandated, to students. That’s not enough though.

Those occasions don’t counteract the repeated prosecution MacCurdy House members face for the SlutWalk, especially after I knocked on fraternity doors to draw attention to their responsibility in Title IX reform. That new level of effort put forward is a start, but it doesn’t match what likely victim-survivors are doing just to advocate for their right to receive an education and not be harassed and assaulted while trying to do so. Like so many other problems we face as a college, a nation, and the millennial generation, there is no excuse for you to not be involved. This is an issue that requires a paradigm shift so that all members of campus can see the same quality of life.

Often, I saw students looking at their peers or professors for the solution to a problem or the right way to fix it. On a national scale, we don’t even have solid methodology behind handling Title IX cases. Don’t wait around for someone else to figure out how to address our cultural and political problems surrounding assault and harassment. Use your higher education, which ought to be instilling at least a drop of critical thinking skill in you, and decide for yourself how to take action.

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