Friday, November 08, 2013

Whitman College Debate Team Addresses Title IX Issues

The college newspaper at Whitman College in Washington state reported in some detail on some Title IX issues that have arisen in the context of their competitive debate team.  According to a recent article, the debate team was the subject of a Title IX complaint filed in August.  (The article does not mention OCR, so I am interpreting this to mean an internal complaint.) The specific contents of the complaint have not been disclosed, but the resulting investigation has prompted the university to suspend the team's travel privileges, which is a big deal to the team since it means forfeiting fall and winter tournaments.

Additionally, the team has committed itself to a plan to address what it admits is a "a culture and climate of inequality, particularly for women." The team has agreed to develop stronger policies addressing harassment and inclusion, to participate in training and education sessions conducted with an external expert on sex and race discrimination, to recruit in a manner designed to attract a more diverse team, and to support female students coming up through high school debate programs.  In addition, the team's published plan of action includes such specific measures as agreeing to conduct all official team functions in an alcohol-free environment, to provide a more formal mentoring of younger students, and even to use headphones "when listening to music that might be perceived as offensive."

When we talk about Title IX issues in the context of particular student organizations or teams, it is usually fraternities and athletic teams that we focus on. This article reminds us that those organizations do not have a monopoly on the kind of climate that supports exclusion, hostility, harassment, and even violence towards women.  It's also a good lesson how to customize a remediation plan to the particulars of an institution.  The students who developed that plan had clearly engaged in some detailed introspection into what unique aspects of their culture (e.g., music with offensive lyrics; the particular places where they recruit for members) need to be addressed. It would be great if all student groups could proactively engage in this kind of soul-searching, rather than in response to a complaint.  At the same time, the fact that a student felt comfortable filing this complaint, and that it was effective in generating this kind of response, is a sign that Whitman College is doing something right.