Job titles and roles may differ, but a good activist can be spotted by their passion and dedication to their work. Despite how time consuming activism can be, it is not something you get into for recognition or notoriety. Most of us choose our paths of activism based on the impact we want to have on others and/or life sort of decides for us, if you will, by placing us in social locations where the only path that makes sense is one of resistance. High levels of notoriety are typically reserved for men, the wealthy, or those who have been doing this for so long that their fame is an accumulated fame. This blog series is not a remedy to this situation, but rather designed as a way to highlight activists and their justice work through brief interviews.
The first installment in this series is an interview with the former Title IX Coordinator for the University of Missouri, Ellen Eardley, Esq. Eardley earned her law degree from University of Cincinnati, College of Law, and quickly developed an interest in civil rights law as they related to labor practices and gender discrimination. Her career has been dedicated to fighting on behalf of those who have been discriminated against as employees or students. Responses were provided during a one-on-one phone interview and reviewed/approved by Eardley prior to publication.
In 2014, the University of Missouri gained national attention over a sexual assault case involving college athletes. This case brought up the question of whether college campuses were doing enough about sexual violence, which prompted changes on campus like making the Title IX Coordinator position full time and hiring someone to lead that work.
What type of law were you practicing before making the career move to the University of Missouri?
I was mainly practicing employment discrimination law, as well as other types of civil rights law, including gender and race discrimination in the workplace. Much of my work was centered on bringing class action cases on behalf of large groups. This work was important for me because when employees come together they can positively impact their situations at work and improve the workplace for others down the line.
What was your understanding of the situation at Mizzou before you were hired, arrived, began fulfilling your responsibilities?
In addition to practicing law, prior to serving as the Title IX Coordinator at the University of Missouri, I was an Adjunct Professor at American University, College of Law. I enjoyed that position and the way I was challenged by students, so I started looking for opportunities to work more closely with students. Around the same time, many higher education institutions started seeking Title IX Coordinators, even though the requirement had been around for years. I applied at the University of Missouri because I was hopeful that I could make necessary changes and impact people’s lives.
I understood there had been some allegations that matters of sexual assault on campus had been mishandled, so I tried to learn as much as possible about that before coming to the university. At the time, I felt the university was ready to make a significant investment to address sexual assault on campus. That’s the reason I came. I felt like there was a sizeable community on campus doing the work but their work had not been elevated. I felt like I was coming into a situation where there was an already existing group of folks who were ready to do and promote the work and make a difference.
When I accepted the position as Title IX Coordinator, I expressed concern over how the Title IX office only handled sexual assault and gender discrimination, and only for students. Basically, I was concerned that work wasn’t being done in an intersectional manner. I felt strongly that we needed an office for faculty, staff, and students; and needed to be able to address discrimination in the ways that people experience it. So when the student protests unfolded – in an intersectional manner raising issues of race, gender, gender identity, disability, and privilege – it helped reinforce the need for the creation of the Office of Civil Rights and Title IX that handled all forms of discrimination faced by faculty, staff, and students. Student voices mattered.
What obstacles did you face in the beginning? How did you, if you were able to, overcome those obstacles?
My biggest obstacle was establishing trust, which is understandable for a campus that had been through very public concerns around sexual violence, as well as very visible student protests. I had to earn the trust of faculty, staff, students, and administrators; and I had to learn to trust as well. I’d say that I made substantial headway in that arena because of my willingness to sit down with anybody and everybody and really listen to their concerns – to ensure that what we were building was something that would serve the community – and that in turn serves the administration by having a community that doesn’t see them as the opposition.
What, if any goals, did you or Mizzou have going in?
The University of Missouri hired me to be the first Title IX Coordinator. I did that and also built an institutional equity office, the Mizzou Office for Civil Rights & Title IX. Creating a central space to deal with all forms of discrimination was the most important goal for me. I knew that was what the community needed. Other important goals were getting the funding to grow the office and the ability to hire a team of five investigators, as well as an education and outreach coordinator; bringing in additional staff for accessibilities and accommodations, making sure the office we created could do the work we were promising to do. It was important to me that I was able to create that together with my team. I think the team we built was well respected because of our professionalism and hard work which helped advance the argument that we were worth the investment financially by the institution.
Did you achieve those goals?
Yes, but there’s always more work to do. There’s a lot more education to be done in the community. Education can’t be a one and done type of thing. It has to be ongoing. We could always use more resources in that regard, but that’s where collaborations across campus and within the Division of Inclusion Diversity, and Equity were helpful.
What do you feel was your biggest accomplishment while you held your position as Title IX Administrator and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Civil Rights & Title IX?
Besides establishing the Office of Civil Rights and Title IX, I would say the new preferred name policy is an important accomplishment, which allows students to have their preferred name on their diplomas and transcripts. We also made meaningful improvements to the nondiscrimination and sexual violence policies. Those policies and procedures are headed in the right direction so that they better address the real life experiences of students, faculty, and staff. Also, putting together a hardworking team that’s respected and trusted is something we accomplished in a short period of time, which speaks a lot to the amazing people on the team.
The current Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, recently announced plans to rescind or revoke guidelines constructed and enforced under Obama’s administration for schools investigating sexual assaults on their campuses. Her proposal reportedly stems from her expressed concern that current guidelines deny those accused of sexual assault a fair judicial process In your experience as Title IX director of a University that garnered national attention – and some might argue played a large role in sparking the Obama administration’s attention to Title IX on college campuses – what are your thoughts about this?
Sexual assault is an epidemic on college and university campuses.
The 2011 and 2014 guidance documents from the Department of Education were really helpful because they made schools’ responsibilities to respond to sexual assault clearer. Anyone who has read those guidance documents will understand that they were concerned with ensuring a fair process for the accuser and accused. If Secretary DeVos really wanted to ensure fairness, she could have enforced the guidance documents that were already in place. For me, it’s misleading and dishonest to suggest otherwise.
Due process is a critical right. And, it’s possible to ensure due process and enforce Title IX. Obviously, it benefits universities to have a process that everyone can trust. Under the 2011 and 2014 guidance, complainants and respondents have the same opportunities to participate, call witnesses, file appeals, have an advisor, etc. – every step of the process. If respondents weren’t being treated fairly by particular schools, the answer should have been to better enforce the 2011 and 2014 guidance — not to rescind the guidance. It’s very concerning to see how the current U.S. Department of Education has tried to frame this issue.
Based on your experiences, what changes would you like to see to the way campus assault investigations are handled on college campuses moving forward?
It is really important that people understand that ending sexual assault on college campuses is a civil rights issue and not a criminal issue. Sexual assault is an extreme form of sexual harassment, so it’s really important to treat it like other civil rights violations. The comparisons to criminal law worry me because universities don’t have a role, with the exception of university police, in the criminal process. When we’re talking about universities’ responsibilities with regard to sexual assault, we’re talking about addressing the effect it has on students’ access to education. Universities are in the position to ensure that there really is equal access.
What do you have going on now – since you are no longer Title IX Coordinator at the University of Missouri, and have parted ways with the University?
Addressing and ensuring equal opportunity is a major component of who I am, so now I’m at a law firm in DC, Mehri & Skalet, PLLC, where I can continue that mission. I work with students and employees in the workplace addressing sexual assault, sexual harassment, and other civil rights issues. I’m looking forward to serving as a consultant to colleges and universities that are seeking assistance getting their equity or Title IX programs off the ground in a meaningful way or that need help with special projects, and working with student advocacy groups who may need to consult with a lawyer to know their rights and whether they need legal counsel in a given situation.
Contact information for our interviewee is below:
Ellen Eardley, Partner at Mehri & Skalet, PLLC