New Title IX leader arrives as students will see major changes

New initiatives aligning with federal investigation will be implemented next semester.

Students can expect several changes to the Title IX offices in accordance with a federal investigation into USC. On July 7, USC announced the appointment of Catherine Spear as vice president for Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX, a new position in a new department. The new office is a combination of the existing Title IX Office and Office of Equity and Diversity (OED). 

In an email to Annenberg Media, the university said the new Office of Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX will ensure “access to clear information about policies and procedural options, respect for individual agency and autonomy in deciding how to interact with the office, informed, equitable and robust investigations, and coordinated actions to protect the safety of our community and promote accountability when a policy violation is found.”

“[Title IX] needs to be more effective and ensure that victims of sexual assault and sexual violence are protected,” said public policy major Mae Gates. “I can’t tell you how many friends I know that have been sexually assaulted on campus, that have filed claims that have not gone anywhere because they always claim that they have insufficient evidence.”

Gates, a rising senior, hopes Spear will address the federal changes to Title IX policies that will go into effect on Aug. 14. The new policy redefines sexual harassment as unwelcome conduct decided by standards of a “reasonable person.” Additionally, the policy no longer requires most employees to be mandated reporters, limits the scope of cases the university is required to investigate, requires live hearings and allows cross-examinations of victims. 

Student leaders on college campuses across the country signed a letter urging the Department of Education to reconsider the policy. Senior vice president for human resources Felicia Washington told the Daily Trojan that the university “will be seeking input from multiple and diverse perspectives from campus constituents before we finalize any changes.” 

Spear comes to USC following tenures at the University of Virginia (UVA) and Stanford University. She served during a turbulent time at Stanford, which included the infamous Brock Turner rape case, a travel ban on Stanford’s marching band and the adoption of a policy that states sexual assault will result in expulsion. 

Stanford’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) notably lost its house after sexual harassment investigations led by Spear’s department. The Stanford Daily published an investigative article on the decision in December 2015. 

Spear also faced criticism surrounding confidentiality issues after students alleged retaliation due to suspected reporting of Title IX concerns. After nearly a year and a half, Spear stepped down as Stanford’s Title IX coordinator to work as the associate vice president of UVA’s Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights in 2015. 

In an email to Annenberg Media, UVA’s dean of students Allen Groves said Spear served as a role model for students and colleagues. 

“Catherine Spear came to the University of Virginia at a time of significant change in the institution’s approach to Title IX case management and student support more broadly,” Groves wrote. “She faced a tall order: to assemble an experienced Title IX team and also to strengthen our mission around equity and civil rights at all levels of the University. USC will benefit greatly by her presence on the school’s senior leadership team.”

Spear is replacing Gretchen Gaspari, who was USC’s executive director of OED, Title IX, and the Office of Conduct, Accountability, and Professionalism. It is unclear why Gaspari left her positions in late June.  

On July 8, Gaspari was named in a lawsuit alleging administrators destroyed evidence in misconduct cases and retaliated against employees who criticized USC. The university has stated that the allegations are unfounded and they “look forward to presenting the actual facts.” Gaspari was not available for comment. 

This lawsuit is the latest complaint of unethical behavior involving USC’s Title IX offices. In February, the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into the offices following the university’s failure to investigate sexual assault allegations against former Keck doctors George Tyndall and Dennis Kelly. USC will be monitored for three years. 

The university said it will continue to implement updated Title IX policies this fall, but did not offer specifics. USC is expected to host recurring sexual harassment trainings for students, staff and faculty in accordance with the Resolution Agreement. Additionally, USC hired Washington, integrated the Student Health Center into Keck Medicine of USC, enhanced the Student Health Center policies and began a Culture Journey involving town halls and value polls. 

Discrimination and student safety on campus is an enduring concern that has been intensified by a national uprising. In fall 2018, USC’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) hosted controversial conservative commentator Ben Shapiro at Bovard Hall. After several organizations on campus criticized USG for funding the event and announced plans to protest, students in these organizations discovered that their tickets had been canceled.

Gates, then co-director of the Black Student Assembly, filed a Title IX case against USC’s chapter of YAF but lost the case due to insufficient evidence. 

“They said that there was not enough evidence on record to find [YAF] guilty of canceling tickets on a race basis, even though I had over 30 witnesses, there were hundreds of pages of evidence, which included text messages of them explicitly saying that they were going to cancel tickets of Black, brown and LGBTQ students,” Gates told Annenberg Media. “I think a key reason as to why it went the way it went was because we did not have any legal representation.”

YAF’s national chapter sent lawyer Harmeet Dhillion, the national committeewoman for the Republican National Committee in California, to defend their case. Gates could not afford an attorney. 

“I think it was a huge equity issue that a predominantly white group had legal representation because of their own resources, because of their organization, but then the rest of us did not,” Gates said. “Even the adjudicators within Title IX said that it was an equity issue.” 

In an email to Annenberg Media, YAF Chairman and rising junior Justin Weiss said although he was not on the executive board at the time, he and YAF believe Title IX made the correct decision to exonerate the organization. 

“YAF did not stand in the way of Ms. Gates finding and utilizing legal representation. We simply utilized the resources our parent organization gave us,” Weiss wrote. “YAF were not the ones who originally brought the Title IX case. If Ms. Gates did not have, in the adjudicators and her own view, adequate legal representation, then the outcome is not the fault of YAF. If Title IX felt strongly that their decision was impacted by that reality, they would not have closed the case.” 

When asked about the situation, Title IX said they are unable to comment on individual cases due to privacy laws.

On June 2, three semesters after the incident and amid increasing criticism, USG tweeted an apology for allowing Shapiro to speak on campus.

Gates says she hopes Spear will address the equity issues in Title IX proceedings and will make sure Title IX is more effective in the future.

“I’m hoping that we’re a little bit more proactive about ensuring that we’re keeping students safe and that we’re delivering repercussions to students that break student conduct code so we can have a better culture at USC,” Gates said.