November 2017 Advocate: New “Equity Investigator” position raises concerns

RESPONDING TO COMPLAINTS AGAINST FACULTY

New HR position, initially titled “Equity Investigator”, raises DAS President’s concerns

by Leigh Anne Shaw, District Academic Senate President

In my role as the District Academic Senate President, I was contacted by the director of HR about a District hire; they wanted this new person to work directly with the Senates to address mandated professional development, provide programs and training, update District policies and procedures, and conduct investigations.  After seeing the job description, I became concerned.

The position was called “Equity Investigator” originally, and I recalled the item on the BOT packet in June, thinking it had to do with campus equity work. Now, the title had changed to “Director of Policy, Training and Compliance.”

Uh, what?

This was post-August 23rd, after the bombshell of the blackface incident months earlier at Skyline had ripped a gash across our three colleges, so the timing of this hiring seemed related, and the title switch was baffling. The new hire was a lawyer; in this context, it looked every bit to be a very prosecutorial approach to cases of unprofessional or inappropriate classroom behavior, in contrast to the educational approach I’d urged. When I saw that the job’s tasks would include faculty training, I wondered why faculty weren’t involved in the hiring – aren’t faculty Senates given the purview over professional development? The job description seemed title IX-heavy, yet the number of incidents reported in the recent Public Safety study didn’t warrant the hiring of a lawyer. So what was this person supposed to be working on?

DAS purview is not contract or working conditions – it’s teaching and learning. However, as I said on opening day, when teaching and learning are affected by working conditions (i.e., mandated training regarding what happens in your classroom), that’s when DAS gets involved. I knew I needed more information. After much discussion, I now have a different understanding, but what’s more, the District now has a deeper understanding of their role in alarming people with changes such as this. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Title IX is no joke. Colleges have mandated Title IX coordinators to deal with claims of sexual harassment, bullying, retaliation, and inappropriate behavior. At each campus, the task falls to an existing administrator, people who don’t have the legal expertise or staff to research procedures and ensure compliance. Public Safety doesn’t report it if police or security were not involved. Not surprisingly, a district of thousands of students and employees might have several incidents. And we do.
2. Our efforts to educate students about their Title IX rights mean that more students are exercising them. That’s a good thing – the Associated Students at all three campuses have said that many students do NOT make claims or accusations against faculty out of fear of retribution. Sometimes the accusations are valid, and sometimes they are unwarranted, such as anger over a bad grade, with no witnesses or evidence of inappropriate behavior. Under the law, however, every single one has to be investigated; if not, we can get sued.
3. Investigations are going on, and let me tell you, that’s probably a good thing. If I were accused of sexual harassment in my class, I would want a thorough investigation to clear my good name. If I were guilty of such an act, I should face the disciplinary actions that are appropriate for that act.

So what caused my concern? First, the initial title of the job was poorly thought out; the failure to describe the position accurately looked like sleight of hand. Bad optics. Secondly, faculty should be part of the hiring of someone who will be conducting trainings for classroom-related behavior, but apparently a classified position doesn’t normally trigger a flag to include faculty. Additionally, the timing of the hire with the events revealed on August 23rd created panic that the legal prosecution arm of the District was inexplicably growing. I take full responsibility for jumping to conclusions that may be unwarranted, but I stressed some things that need to be attended to:

• Faculty can’t do their best work as educators if they’re scared or feeling like someone’s out to get them. Regardless of whether that was the District’s goal, that was what people perceived, and perception is reality. The District could recognize its role in inflaming alarm and can do more to reduce anxiety over news of investigations.

• Faculty should be involved in hiring of personnel who will train us in anything that we do in our profession. A discussion and analysis of “what should be a clue that faculty should be on a hiring committee” will be forthcoming between DAS and HR.

• Faculty need to understand what investigations entail and why they are done. FAQ’s and explanations about what to expect need to be created so that faculty aren’t terrified beyond reason if students or staff make complaints about them. I will be working with the District on a better way of educating people about this.

I don’t enjoy occupying a space of suspicion and fear; it doesn’t serve anyone. How can we reduce it? My message to the HR director was that we can do great work if we feel valued and supported, but feeling threatened or set up makes it hard to be our best for our students. Supporting our students necessitates a safe environment where faculty are clear about processes for dealing with difficult situations.

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