Lee Burdette WilliamsMay 13·34 min read
The most unsettling weekend of my professional career was spent in a small hotel conference center in the company of people I had never met before and whom I have not seen since. It upended much of what I believed about myself and my profession and plucked me from a path I had traveled for twenty-five years, depositing me in an unfamiliar landscape that still feels, almost five years later, like a foreign land.
To say a weekend was “unsettling” is no small claim for someone who had spent nine years as a dean of students on two campuses. Deans of students regularly experience weekends that most people would find challenging. Suicides and suicide attempts, drunken fights and subsequent arrests, sexual assaults during large, chaotic parties, students hospitalized after accidents, alcohol poisoning, untreated chronic illnesses, large, newsworthy drug busts, hate-filled graffiti on a campus door. For a dean of students, a weekend on campus is considered a good one if, on Monday morning, no one has died and there is neither a reporter nor a uniformed officer sitting on the bench in the hallway awaiting your arrival.
The weekend that changed everything for me, ironically, took place two thousand miles from the campuses where I had worked, two years after I had walked away from a role and a title that I had worked years to achieve.
It began with an email from an unfamiliar account, an invitation to speak at a weekend event to take place several months hence in Phoenix, a “Meet and Greet” sponsored by a group I was unfamiliar with, Families Advocating for Campus Equality, or FACE. The person sending the email described the organization’s mission: “To advocate for equal treatment and due process for those affected by sexual misconduct allegations on campus and to provide support for those affected through outreach and education.” I Googled a bit and learned that FACE was started by a couple of angry mothers whose sons had been accused of sexual assault on their campuses, and in trying to find resources for their sons, they found one another.
I was surprised, but not terribly puzzled, by the invitation. A year earlier, I had published a piece in Inside Higher Ed called “The Dean of Sexual Assault,” a valedictory of sorts explaining part of the reason I had given up a job I loved but no longer felt equipped to do. The piece was intended as a critique of the politicization of sexual assault at the expense of fairness to all students. All students, I had written, all of my students, each of them a singular responsibility for me. The enormous pressure placed on people in the roles of investigating, adjudicating and sanctioning sexual violence by those who had little understanding of the work itself, or of the professional commitment and training we bring to it, made it untenable for me, and many others like me, to want to continue.
While I considered the piece my final word on the subject, it had attracted continued attention from two groups who saw themselves in it — two very different groups, ironically. The first group was the group for whom I had written it — student affairs professionals who were under siege, battered by attorneys, activists and social media trolls. Their emails to me in the wake of the essay’s publication were heartbreaking. Many were wrestling with the issues I had raised, and were torn between leaving a profession they loved and staying despite the emotional toll it was taking to hold steady and do the work fairly. Not long after the piece was published, a friend who was giving a keynote address at a gathering of student conduct professionals I was attending pointed me out in the audience, saying, “You know Lee. She wrote that piece “The Dean of Sexual Assault.” Eight hundred pairs of eyes turned toward me in that Florida ballroom. It scared me to have been outed. Until. The audience rose to its feet and applauded. Later, my keynoting friend and I talked about their reaction. I told her I was unexpectedly moved by their reaction.
“When I wrote that piece, that’s who I was writing about,” I told her.
“No, you had it wrong,” she told me. “Not just ‘about.’ You were speaking for them. And that doesn’t happen for these professionals often enough.”
The second group was not at all who I was speaking to, or for, or about. But some heard it that way. The piece was reposted on various websites used by groups whose efforts focused on supporting accused students. Some were men’s rights groups who interpreted my piece as an acknowledgment of how the deck was stacked against men. So when I received the invitation from FACE, I emailed a journalist I had gotten to know who wrote about campus sexual assault, Emily Yoffe.
Emily is herself a controversial figure in the world of campus sexual assault advocacy. Actually, she isn’t that controversial. Campus sexual violence advocates hate Emily. But I had been reading her work for several years, and actually found her to be a fairly reliable narrator of the twists and turns of campus sexual assault, asking hard questions that advocates should have been able to answer, but were often too distracted by their own anger to engage fruitfully. I didn’t always like her characterizations of my profession, but had to admit that some of her criticisms hit the mark. Emily had contacted me after the publication of “The Dean of Sexual Assault” to talk about sexual violence on campus as seen through a lens often ignored: the professionals who work in the field of student conduct, and we had remained in touch after the piece she wrote was published in The Atlantic.
I asked Emily about FACE. “Is it a legit group, or one of those scary men’s rights groups that live on the fringes of the incel world?” While I had serious concerns about how campus sexual assault was viewed and reviewed on campus, I had no interest in aligning myself with the nutjobs out there who think all feminists hate men, who think sexual assault survivors deserved what happened to them, who contribute to a campus, and broader, culture of misogyny and violence.
“That’s not this group,” Emily told me. “They’re mostly parents whose sons — at least as they see it — have gotten caught in the overcorrection.” “Overcorrection” was shorthand that Emily and I used to talk about our shared observation: a shift in how campuses responded to sexual assault allegations that eradicated most rights an accused student had to defend himself, continue his education during an investigation, to be presumed not responsible until proven otherwise. It was at the core of “The Dean of Sexual Assault,” and had caused me enormous ethical grief.
Did she think I should accept this invitation? She said she thought they’d be a tough, but fair, crowd. If I believed in what I had written, I should be willing to engage in a discussion of it. “But angry mothers,” I said. “I’ve kind of had my fill of them, too.”
“Well, then it should be an interesting weekend.”
I responded to the FACE representative who had originally emailed and asked her, “Why exactly do you think your group wants to hear from me?”
“Our board thinks you seem like you might be a reasonable college administrator. They would like to hear your perspective.” Nothing flatters a college administrator, especially a dean of students, like being called “reasonable.”
I accepted the invitation to join them at their annual gathering, and booked a flight.
A dean of students is almost always on display. A walk across campus might elicit friendly hellos or quiet grumblings, depending on the students. The job has numerous wonderful perks: invitations to events and organization meetings where your presence is cause for delight, happy students and parents at family weekends and commencement who thank you for your efforts on behalf of a student, the opportunity to help a student at a difficult time, using the kind of resources at the disposal of a senior campus administrator to speed up the grinding machinery of higher education to avert a crisis, or to connect someone in need with the person on campus who actually can help.
It is also, at times, a brutally tough job that requires a thicker skin than most of us have — me included. A dean of students makes decisions that provoke the campus masses into action. The dean is often the face of an administration making backroom moves that seem unjust or insensitive. An email, a sentence spoken in front of a group, even an answer to a question asked by a student as you walk across the campus quad — all have the potential to reverberate across campus, echoing from dorm to classroom to the dreaded change.org petition, ultimately coming back to ring in your ears for days. The reverberation can now extend into the ether, thanks to both the legitimate higher education press (The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, which report on campus crises that in the past remained local) and the many chatrooms, websites and social media platforms frequented by a network of interested, if not always informed, advocates.
I was thinking about some of those experiences as I rode the hotel shuttle from the airport to the Crowne Plaza. I was reasonably confident that, having been tempered by the fire of angry students and parents for years, the people I was about to encounter, with whom I had to have no further contact beyond the weekend, would be no match. As the shuttle pulled up to the front door, I felt reasonably confident that I would find it all interesting enough to share with Emily afterwards.
I had no idea.
At the front desk, I was given my room key and a folder of information that had been left for me. In it was a handwritten note from Sherry Warner, one of the group’s leaders, inviting me to the reception taking place in a couple of hours out by the pool. I retreated to my room to change clothes, practice my remarks to be given the next day, and call home. My partner sensed my hesitation about the reception, knowing my introvert tendencies. “Why wouldn’t you go? You like meeting parents,” she said.
“These aren’t the parents I’m used to schmoozing with. I don’t know their students.”
“Go. Have a glass of wine, eat some appetizers, chat, and leave. Your hosts will be happy to see you’ve arrived.” An hour later, I made my way to the pool deck where a group had started to gather. I went directly to the bar and ordered a glass of Chardonnay, dropped a dollar in the tip jar and looked around. I spotted two women off to the edge of the group, looking a bit uncomfortable, and walked over to them, smiling.
Have you ever walked into the wrong classroom, or meeting, sat down and known almost instantly that you were in the wrong place? Or have you ever, perhaps while traveling, asked a question of a stranger only to learn you do not speak one another’s language? Have you ever found yourself in a conversation where you wished a meteor might land nearby and distract everyone so you could exit quickly without your conversation partners noticing? Perhaps all three in the space of ten minutes?
I should say that yes, I’m good at schmoozing. A dean of students routinely has to attend receptions and gatherings, chatting up parents, alumni, board members. Thanks to my liberal arts education, I am confident in my ability to converse about anything for five minutes (beyond that, content thins out considerably). So as I joined these two women, I felt the confidence that comes from years of approaching strangers and taking the lead in a conversation. Their name tags showed just their first names, Teresa and Eileen.
“Hi there! My name is Lee. I flew in from Vermont this afternoon and it’s so nice to be outside in this warmth. Where have you folks traveled from?” They exchanged glances and Teresa tentatively answered, which should have been my first clue that all was not going to go smoothly.
“We’re from New York.”
“Oh. What part?” After all, I’m a New Jersey native and have lived in the northeast most of my life, so I can talk geographic specifics.
Another meaningful glance passed between them. Eileen finally answered after what felt like about five minutes. “We’d rather not say.”
Okay. So this was an answer I had never gotten before. I quickly recalibrated. “Oh, sure. Well. Lots of great parts of New York. So. Um. Have you been part of FACE for long?” And maybe that was the moment when I knew I had totally blown any credibility, and which I’ll blame on being so thrown off by their answer. Because why would they be there? Why would they be familiar with FACE?
To their credit, they did not walk away from me. They instead did stay and talk, tentatively telling me what had brought them to Phoenix. Their son was a student at a fairly selective university (they did not tell me which one). He had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman with whom he had a relationship that had recently ended. He was initially found not responsible, but she appealed, something the school had only recently decided to allow. He was then found responsible and expelled, in the middle of his senior year. Hesitant to salt their obviously still-open wound, I tentatively asked, “What was different about the second hearing?”
Eileen answered quickly. “We don’t know, and neither does our son, because he wasn’t allowed access to the second set of case files.”
“That’s not right,” I said.
“We didn’t think so, so we’ve hired a lawyer, but he’s already missed too much school to graduate. And he’s not sure he wants to go back. We found FACE when we started looking online for help.”
Teresa seemed to shift her thoughts abruptly. “What about you? Is this your first FACE event too? What brings you here?”
“Yes. I’m actually one of tomorrow’s presenters.”
“Oh. Which one?” Eileen opened the folder she had laid on the high top table nearby. She quickly glanced again at my name tag which, like hers, had only my first name, then at the schedule in her open folder. I was listed as “former student affairs dean.” The friendly tone our conversation had taken, which I felt I had earned with some seriously hard work, disappeared. “Nice talking with you,” Eileen said, and then looked at Teresa. “We should mingle.” And without another word, they walked away, leaving me alone with my now-empty plastic cup.
I could have, maybe should have, continued to interact with others around the pool deck, but a quick scan showed them all in small groups conversing, none of the solo attendees or lost-looking pairs that I always sought out to engage at these things. And honestly, I was shaken, both by Eileen and Teresa’s reaction to me and mine to their story. I smiled as I walked past the others and into the hotel. I looked at my phone and saw a text from my friend Linda. “How’s it going there so far?” Linda was provost during my time as dean of students and understood the particular challenges this weekend presented. I hit the phone icon and was relieved when she answered. I sat in a corner of the hotel lobby where I could see the pool deck and the FACE guests gathering in greater numbers, including several young men who seemed to gravitate toward one another.
“It’s not that I’m not familiar with being hated by people because of my job title,” I told Linda. “It’s more that I felt so immediately…indicted? And also inadequate. Like I had come upon a car wreck and people were injured and I couldn’t even get out of my car.” She made some sympathetic comments, offered another round of encouragement, and we said goodbye. I sat for one more minute in the soft grey chair near the window, debating whether I had the courage, or the temerity, to re-enter the reception. Deciding I had neither, I stood up and walked toward the elevator.
Maybe I was naïve. Yes. I was naïve. I really believed that my remarks the next day would shed some light on the hardworking, caring people in my profession, and offer a new perspective on fairness and justice. I was so, so wrong.
I showed up at the start of the first session the next morning, having chosen to skip the breakfast buffet offered to FACE guests in order to avoid another awkward conversation. I took my place in the middle of a row of chairs, empty seats on either side of me, and settled in as anonymously as I could. The morning’s sessions included a talk by the journalist Cathy Young who took on the concept of “rape culture” in a way that would have earned her a spot next to Emily Yoffe on the campus advocates’ hit list. Young’s premise was that our campuses have been overrun by second wave feminists who have turned their academic passions into incubators of activism. As she spoke, I imagined the faces of my former faculty colleagues — smart, capable, committed feminists who indeed create in their classrooms, if not incubators, something of a neonatal ICU for their students’ own passions. I thought about the specific faculty members I had relied on to serve as advocates, investigators, hearing officers, the ones who willingly gave time and energy to our efforts to stop students from harassing and assaulting one another. Is that who she was talking about? Wait. As a dean of students, I had been indebted to these colleagues. Never once had I heard their motives questioned. I certainly had never questioned them. But as I listened to Young, I realized there was a very different perspective out there that I had completely missed. There was blame being ascribed, and its target was the very group of faculty and staff I had come to value for their work on campus.
It had never occurred to me that others might condemn their efforts, and as I listened to Young, this counter narrative came into focus as though I was twisting a camera lens. What if Young had a point? What if these feminist warriors, women in their 50s, 60s, 70s, had taken their academic research — the articles and books they wrote to earn tenure, and turned it into experiential learning — something I held in high regard? And in doing so, what if they had tilted the playing field toward the students, mostly young women, who took their classes and found in these professors women worthy of admiration — maybe even a bit of hero worship? It was no coincidence, Young claimed, that the rise of women’s studies programs on college campuses coincided with the arrival of women’s centers and victim’s advocate services.
“Yes, but that’s a good thing, right?” That was actually just a voice in my head. I was still trying to avoid any attention from the others in attendance. But I was troubled. Again. I mean, I taught in women’s studies programs. I had started a women’s center on one campus, for God’s sake. I was one of those higher education professionals — faculty and staff — that Young was critiquing. I began to have some serious doubts about my own talk, just a few hours away.
Young’s talk was followed by a session of audience sharing. As I listened, I realized why FACE is so guarded in its advertising of these meet-and-greets. Unlike a typical organization’s event, you can’t simply go on their page and find the information you would need to get to this ballroom on this date. You need to contact someone within the organization who then invites you. The stories being shared by these family members would have made great content for either a reporter or a campus advocate to exploit. But that wasn’t the purpose of this sharing. Here, I realized, these families found a community of similarly frustrated and angry parents. Those for whom this was their first meet-and-greet spoke about their sons’ campus encounters, and after a few stories, some themes emerged. The first was that the woman involved was either a former girlfriend, emotionally unstable, manipulated by others, or some combination of these. The second: campus administrators were either indifferent to their son’s version of events, hostile and deceitful, completely incompetent, or again, a combination of these.
Several parents broke down in tears while describing months, or in some cases years, of hearings, attorneys, suspensions, expulsions, the costs of therapy and inpatient stays for now-suicidal sons, and at the heart of it, a complete loss of any faith in the competence or compassion of senior campus administrators, like, say, a dean of students.
As the family sharing segment ended, I quickly left the room and headed outside into the hot, dry Arizona morning to try and regroup my emotions. Sometimes, I had learned over my career, a dean of students has to stand in front of an angry crowd and remain composed, and I knew how to do this. I knew how to be disarming with warmth, or humor, but most importantly, I knew that people wanted to feel heard. I could do that! I would be fine! I breathed deeply and reentered the lobby.
There were still two sessions before my talk — both panels. The first was a panel of attorneys, an articulate and experienced group whose names I recognized from media coverage of sexual misconduct cases that had resulted in lawsuits against universities: Eric Rosenberg, Mark Hathaway, Kimberly Lau. If deans of students have monsters under the bed, they look a lot like these attorneys. In their remarks, they systematically critiqued the many ways colleges and universities have failed in their efforts to be fair, compassionate and appropriate. At some point in the session, my mind wandered to the many panels of university counsels I have attended, and found myself imagining a cage match between these two sides. And then I re-imagined it to include the deans, investigators and hearing officers caught in the crossfire of these powerful intellects that were coupled with a degree of certitude I could only envy. One of the many truths I had learned through my career is that the higher up you go on the organizational chart, the easier a target you become, and as a dean of students, there is really nowhere to hide when the attorneys — on both sides — come riding into town.
The second panel consisted of five men who had been accused of sexual misconduct on campus. They each told a story that, like the parents’ earlier tales, was a combination of revenge by a scorned or manipulated woman and administrative ineptitude. They also shared strategies they had used to weather the months of uncertainty, or to recover from what they believed was life-altering and permanent damage. Again, I found myself remembering the many times I have listened to stories told by sexual assault survivors — the many “Take Back the Night” marches and rallies I had attended. I wondered, uncomfortably, if I had not listened as carefully to the accused men, even though I would have sworn that I was fair and open-minded. Because I didn’t hear stories like these in quite the way I was hearing them at this moment — punches landing in my gut.
Several years before, on the small college campus where I was dean, there had been a difficult — downright ugly — case involving three first-year students, two males and a female, in which she had accused them of sexually assaulting her. She did not say the sex was nonconsensual, just that she was intoxicated at the time, and that she now understood that to mean she couldn’t have given consent. Both sides, as is often the case in these matters, had groups of supporters antagonizing the other side, asking to meet with me to share information they thought I needed to know — emails, texts, social media posts, comments in the dining halls. For several weeks, it felt like a war was being waged on campus. One night, well after midnight, one of the men called me on my cell phone. I must have given him my number in a moment of weakness. He was crying — close to hysterical. A group of women had spotted him earlier that evening as he left the library with a friend. They screamed across the lawn, “Rapist! Rapist!” until he was out of earshot. He told me he held it together until he parted from his friend, and then quickly returned to his room where he had begun to pack his belongings, planning to leave. He was mostly packed when he called me. “I don’t want to leave, but I can’t stay here if that’s going to keep happening.” His despair vibrated through my phone as I listened to him try to catch his breath. I told him to come to my office in the morning and we would figure out a plan, and he agreed.
I had no plan, of course, other than to reassure him that eventually the name-calling would stop, which it did. The hearing happened, and neither of the men were found responsible for assault. The hearing board found that all three were likely intoxicated, and without any other witnesses, there was no clear evidence an assault had happened. The same case, of course, would have had a different outcome if it had been heard several years later when sex-while-intoxicated became a common reason for a finding of assault. But at the time of that case, the ground was just beginning to shift. The national network of survivor advocacy was growing.
That case was also when things began to change for me. I had three first-year students for whom I was equally responsible (at least that was how I saw it), all of them (and their parents) traumatized to some degree by the storm raging around them on campus. I had dozens of other students taking sides, joined by faculty who wanted to be supportive of one of the students.
It was that complex and painful case that provided my first hints of the power that sexual assault cases had to polarize — perhaps destroy — community. When I think back to that year, 2010, I see it as something of a dividing line in my own mind. Before then, sexual violence response was messy, yes, but contained within the parameters of a conduct process. Case law and directives from federal agencies moved our efforts forward in an imperfect, but hopefully positive, way. We learned from every case, from every colleague’s tale of an incident (with details shared over the phone or a glass of wine at a professional conference), from every letter of agreement released by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
What I failed to understand then was that lines were already being drawn, that two sides were forming, and that the tools we had always been taught would help us keep our campuses civil, if not unified — transparency, compassion, active listening — would not be enough to maintain the bonds of community. Of course, what I also didn’t understand then the way I do now is that those bonds were both fragile and inequitable. Women, and some men, who had been victimized by sexual predators were not treated fairly or compassionately throughout the long history of coeducation. While I did not agree with the use of the term “epidemic” to describe the incident rate of sexual assault on campus, I knew it was pervasive and devastating to victims and survivors (the language changed over time).
Maybe if we had been better at responding to accusations, if we had better recognized the deep-seated misogyny and objectification of women on our campuses, we would not have experienced the backlash that came when those women found their voice. Maybe they would not have been so extremely, legitimately, pissed off.
But they were. Emboldened by growing networks of advocates and survivors, fueled by continued screw-ups on campuses, supported by now-tenured faculty in women’s and gender studies and well-established women’s centers, survivors’ advocates had risen up and launched an attack on a culture of sexual… permissiveness? Assertiveness? Aggression? A culture that led to too many college students having sex either against their will or under circumstances that compromised their judgment. Their attack extended to the administrators and processes that too often dismissed claims and campus leaders who looked the other way when fraternities hung banners on their houses suggesting women were little more than prey. Or chanting from the sidelines of a Take Back the Night march that “no means yes.” Their complaints and concerns were reasonable, if some of their tactics weren’t. The trolling and doxxing of alleged assaulters and the way those activities cleaved a campus in two were incredibly destructive to any sense of community or trust. But sometimes frustration provokes a response that, in hindsight, is out of proportion. In the moment, though, it’s the only thing you’ve got left.
The pendulum, of course, started to swing with the first wave of litigation by accused students who were banned from campus and denied the right to continue their education before even having a hearing, and then it swung more when those who were suspended or expelled following those hearings began to question the legitimacy of the processes that had, it appeared, doomed them. Undergirding those processes was the mantra, “Believe the woman.” It’s a reasonable demand, coming after generations of women’s rightful grievances being ignored by the courts, by law enforcement, by student conduct boards, even by friends and family. The problem with “believe the woman” as an approach is that it places all women into one utterly credible bucket of complainants, and their respondents into another absolutely despicable bucket of violators. And as any of us who have spent our professional lives working with college students know, those buckets don’t exist.
In my career, I have known stellar, decent, upstanding fraternity members. I have known selfish and self-absorbed peer advisors. I have known intellectually formidable football players. Lesbian sorority sisters. Sexually adventurous Campus Crusade for Christ members. And when it comes to accusations of sexual assault, I have known both men and women who are brave and honest, and men and women who lie without a moment’s hesitation. So yes — “believe the woman” is a good place to start, but it is not the place to finish. And that journey from start to finish? There are many twists, countless detours, numerous roadblocks. But it must be taken. And to do so — to travel that complicated road — is not, in itself, a dismissal of a woman’s accusation. But many see it that way.
Which is how, I think, FACE came to be. The parents that I have known throughout my career have generally expressed a common response to an accusation against their son: “If my son did something wrong, he should be held accountable. I will hold him accountable myself. Just please walk me through what he did, how you know that, and what happens next.” Yes, there have been those parents whose regard for their child (male and female both) rendered them unable to consider the possibility of their child doing something wrong, but honestly, those were rare. I have sat with parents at the table in my office and showed them evidence of drug-selling (text messages, confiscated contraband, witness statements), vandalism (the student who wrote his actual first name and last initial in fresh cement), assaults or thefts caught on video camera. Parents, at that point, typically drop their eyes to the table, sigh audibly, sometimes cry, but generally acknowledge that their kid screwed up.
But an accusation of sexual assault is different, and not just because the stakes are high (drug-dealing students also face expulsion and criminal charges). It isn’t just the response that “my son would never do that…my son was raised to respect women” (after all, most parents didn’t raise their sons to be the kind of young man who steals a staff golf cart and drives it into a pond, but the wet footprints that led campus police to his door give lie to their best child-raising efforts). It’s more, I think, that some — not all — of these assault allegations take place in the context of a relationship that the parent has had some window into through overheard conversations and intuition. An assault that happens at a fraternity party when an intoxicated woman, previously unknown to the assailant, ends up in his bed is one thing. A parent is likely to be as repulsed by that as anyone. But an accusation made by a former girlfriend, a girlfriend that perhaps the parents have gotten to know, invited to their home, added to the Christmas gift list — that this young woman would, after the end of the relationship, dangle a reconciliation at the end of a late-night booty call, or express jealousy of a new girlfriend, or enlist her friends (and his) into a war — this is hard to accept.
Parents would ask me, “Do you know what’s been going on?” and then unspool a tale worthy of the Bravo network. “My son isn’t perfect” (I heard that phrase about once a week in my career), “but his ex-girlfriend is very” (choose one) angry/heartbroken/vengeful/crazy. The possibility that this young woman held in her hands the power to derail their son’s education, something these parents might have been imagining since he was in utero, was untenable. The possibility that the process designed to respond to exactly these sorts of accusations already appeared to presuppose his guilt — that was unimaginable. No amount of assurance on my part (which, in hindsight, I have to admit was not always offered with absolute confidence) convinced them that their son would be treated fairly. If that were the case, why were they already being told he had to leave campus, and his classes, before there was so much as a preliminary hearing?
Here’s something the general public might not realize. One of the most valuable skills an administrative assistant in a dean of students’ office brings to the job is the ability to keep separate the parents of an accused student and an accusing student. On our small campus, this would happen in these cases more often than one might expect. Sure — we are expected to, and capable of, keeping the two students apart throughout the early part of an investigation. But parents are different. They are not nearly as likely as their children to be cowed by a request from the dean to remain off campus until an appointed time. They are panicked, or angry, or both, and they want immediate redress, not to be told the dean will see them at 2 pm that afternoon. On more than one occasion, my associate dean and I tag-teamed parents, one set in my office, one set down the hall in the (hopefully available) conference room. I lived in fear of an altercation between furious fathers as much as I did of friends of the involved students. Most parents are not fools. But angry parents exist on the narrow edge of reason, and when they turn on you, or each other, it’s with an effectiveness born of years of experience that students don’t yet have.
I thought about those parents as I sat among these parents in the Crowne Plaza meeting room that morning, and my anxiety about my upcoming talk, the first one scheduled following lunch, grew. Even now, as I write these words and remember that morning in Phoenix, my heart rate seems to be ticking upward. Not surprisingly, when the group broke for lunch, I left the ballroom and headed for an isolated corner of the pool deck. I pulled from a folder my printed remarks and read through them, my confidence dissipating in the Arizona heat. I crossed out a few lines, added some notes, but I knew. I knew I was about to encounter an audience unlike any previous one I’d spoken to.
Did it occur to me to bolt? Yes, actually. I could feign illness (actually, it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch). But my hubris got the better (or maybe the worse) of me. I could do this! They would hear me, sense my sincerity, my commitment, my professionalism, and like that Florida audience, would rise to their feet and applaud, grateful to have finally been heard by a reasonable college administrator!
I probably don’t need to say this, but reader, that didn’t happen.
After Sherry quieted the audience, made a few announcements, and introduced me, I began. “This was an unexpected invitation,” I told them, but I was grateful for it. I told them about “The Dean of Sexual Assault,” and how it described a decision I made to walk away from this work, and how much of that decision was the result of no longer being able to do the job the way I thought it should be done. They were quiet, attentive. I continued, explaining how people in jobs like I had once had did our jobs in anonymity, until recent years when we had begun to be named in popular media. I mentioned the now-discredited Rolling Stone article that named an assistant dean at the University of Virginia who became the victim of harassment herself, another at the University of Richmond, torched by an unedited, unfact-checked hit job on the Huffington Post’s contributor platform. I said, “We are being named, and then subjected to, at worst, harassment and threats, but even at best, lots of Monday morning quarterbacking by a general public, by attorneys and activists, by parents and students, who don’t really understand who we are and how and why we do our work. I think it’s important that we have our say.”
Reading these words, written in the speech still stored on my computer, mortifies me. Maybe it’s because I know what followed, but it might also be because in the five years since that afternoon, I have come to hear that defensiveness in other student affairs professionals, and I know it’s not what the moment calls for. This is not at all to imply that I know what the moment does call for. It’s just that it’s definitely not whining.
I went on to give them an unnecessary disquisition on student affairs, and the professionals who occupy these roles on campus, asking them to believe that, more than anything, we care about our students, which we do, but again: it was not what they were interested in hearing.
Then I tacked. I talked about the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter and subsequent harm done by the Office of Civil Rights, and the grossly unfair expectation the DCL and OCR had that student affairs professionals had to put out a fire that OCR had started. After setting that fire, I told them, OCR had created a process that made it impossible to put out the fire. Trust me — the metaphor all made sense, and I love a good metaphor. But the audience was growing restless with my second approach, post-whining: blame someone else.
Anyone who has ever spoken in front of an audience knows that the brain is capable of maintaining a dialogue of its own, separate from what the speaker is saying. It’s the voice that picks up clues from a potentially disruptive audience member, the voice that reminds you that you need to change slides. In this case, the internal voice providing play-by-play for me said, “They are not buying it, sister. Wrap it up and get out of here.” But any speaker will also tell you that once you’re on that dais, reading your carefully-written remarks, listening to the sound of your own (actual) voice, you silence your more rational friend and continue.
That is, until someone in the audience shouts at you, which is what happened. “You don’t get it at all, do you?” yelled a man from the middle of the room. I stopped, the sound of a needle being pulled across vinyl in my head. I didn’t respond to him, just blinked, looked back to the podium and continued. I didn’t have a lot of experience with hecklers, but guessed it was best to just ignore him.
“How can you defend yourself? Do you even know what you’re talking about?” he shouted again. Others shushed him and he turned on them. “Why do we have to sit and listen to someone defend the very people who have destroyed our sons’ lives.”
“Let her finish,” another father called out. And then, silence. I looked down, and up, and down again, unsure of my next move, and finally croaked something like, “I hope you’ll let me finish, and I might cover exactly what it is you’re asking of me.” My mouth continued to shape and speak the words on the pages in front of me, but the dialogue in my brain was at a loud and frightened pitch. Was there anything in the upcoming paragraphs that would actually respond to this man’s accusations? I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t think ahead and speak at the same time. So I just plowed ahead, ad-libbing here and there to demonstrate that I did hear their incredulity, which was entirely true. I heard it. I was just not sure how to lessen it.
Finally, I was done. While I doubt the actual temperature in the room had changed at all, it felt like the air conditioning had shut down. It was time for Q and A. I remember the blood pounding in my ears, requiring me to lean forward and lip read the first question. Surprisingly, my heckler remained silent. I think he had made his point. A hand went up in the corner of the room where the young men — the accused students — had congregated throughout the day. I recognized the questioner — the son of one of FACE’s founders. He stood when I called on him.
“Have you ever made a decision that ended up ruining someone’s life?”
I can say with certainty that nothing in my years of education, training or experience quite prepared me to answer that question, cloaked as it was in a heartbreaking accusation, evidence of a breach in a relationship — between student and dean — that I had come to believe was sacred. I paused for what probably seemed an unreasonable amount of time and finally answered.
“Yes, I suspect I have made decisions that have caused great hurt to students and their families. I hope their lives weren’t ruined, but I don’t know that they weren’t.”
There were a couple more questions, but honestly, I don’t recall them. I only recall this one with such specificity because on the plane ride home, still stinging from the sound of his voice, I wrote it in an email to my friend Linda. In fact, much of my memory of this weekend was captured in a long missive I wrote to her in order to try and make sense of all that transpired.
The session was over and the audience wandered into the lobby for cold drinks on a linen-covered table. I noticed the group of young men huddled in the corner, speaking animatedly with a FACE mother, a couple of them occasionally glancing my way. The one who had asked the question broke away from the group and approached me. “I’m sorry if my question sounded rude.”
“Your question was fair,” I said. “No need to apologize.” He nodded and walked away.
I sat through another session, smiling at anyone who looked at me, trying desperately to show that I was just fine. But I wasn’t. I was utterly unsure of myself. While I’m not someone who is typically self-assured, I can usually muster enough certitude, enough solid ground, that I can stand and parry back the world’s jousts and thrusts. At that moment, I was flat-footed and wobbly.
The final session ended and I made a beeline for the door, but the mother who had been talking with the men in the corner intercepted me and walked with me into the lobby. I think she was trying to be kind. She said, “I wanted you to know that I talked to the guys after your speech. They had two conclusions.” I stopped and looked at her, like a boxer who drops her gloves to her waist just before the deadly right hook she knows is coming. “The first was that it was the first time they felt heard by someone in your position.” I exhaled. Gloves still down, though. “The second was that the tables were turned — that you experienced what they had been through: telling your story to a room full of people who didn’t believe you. They found that kind of satisfying.” She smiled, her eyes showing some — but not a lot of — sympathy. I thanked her and turned toward the elevator, desperate to be out of their sight.
But dear God, it wasn’t over! I had agreed to join the FACE advisory board for dinner that night, and Sherry told me to meet them in the hotel bar. When I arrived, fake smile still on my face, another mother approached me. She asked me what I was drinking (anything, I thought, just make it strong and deliver it fast), then handed me the glass of wine the bartender had just filled.
“My son’s hearing was a joke,” she said. “He never stood a chance. Do you know that the hearing officer and the investigator are good friends? And that the ‘advocate’” — she practically spit out the word — “they assigned to him was also a friend of theirs? I found them all on Facebook, attending the wedding of the person who is supposed to hear appeals. All friends. I saw them leaving together after the hearing, and in the parking lot of a restaurant heading in together. We decided to eat somewhere else.”
I thought about my colleagues, the small college team I worked with every day. We were friends. We sometimes dined together. We would have walked across campus together after a hearing. It had honestly never occurred to me how that would look to an outsider desperately seeking a fair hearing for her son. In her eyes, the fix was in, had always been. She told me what school her son had been expelled from. I knew some of those people. I knew my counterpart there, knew him to be a highly-regarded senior student affairs professional. I offered no defense, however, because I had none.
There is a quote from the Reverend Howard Thurman that I have used more times than I remember when leading workshops for students on leadership and community. “It’s a miracle when one man, standing in his place, is able, while remaining there, to put himself in another man’s place. To send his imagination forth to establish a beachhead in another man’s spirit, and from that vantage point so to blend with the other’s landscape that what he sees and feels is authentic…To experience this is to be rocked to one’s foundations.”
This woman offered me a hand and pulled me into her landscape, gave me a beachhead from which to turn and look at myself, my profession, my colleagues, so much of what I cherished. And we looked nothing like what I had once believed us to be. I had been so certain of my integrity, of my commitment to my students, but I had never seen my work through the eyes of these parents or the sons they fiercely defended. Nor had I fully understood how I looked through the eyes of the women who expected support and instead got fairness, two things I thought could coexist, but that looked and felt very different to the recipient. I wanted to be fair, I wanted to be kind, but what if fairness and kindness are mutually exclusive? In the end, maybe all I could claim was perseverance, that I had kept trying to get it right. And then I gave up and walked away, so I couldn’t even claim that anymore.
When I wrote “The Dean of Sexual Assault” in 2015, I believed that we — higher education professionals — had occupied some moral high ground in the war against sexual assault, that our work was the work of the angels. My stated reason for leaving a job I mostly loved was my frustration and sadness over how we had been drafted against our will into a dirty war. I no longer wished to be a soldier. I had, in that self-reckoning back then, walked through a door into a room of significant enlightenment, or at least I thought that was the case. My weekend in Phoenix happened while I stood in that room, full of righteousness, but the light got brighter, and suddenly I saw another door. It led me to a new room, one where I now stood asking of myself and my colleagues, how much damage had we done ourselves? As is the case in many wars, the sides are not clearly drawn. There is always another door to walk through, always another layer of truth to peel away.
Since my final days as a dean, the sexual assault landscape has continued to change. The pendulum is nothing if not persistent. Back, forth. Back, forth. Cases are heard on campus, the results are argued over in civil courts. Case law tells deans how to adjust. The Office of Civil Rights refines or refutes those adjustments. Three presidential administrations have stepped in to tell OCR what to do, multiple lawyers on both sides have struggled to turn those directives into policies. They have occasionally sought input from deans and student conduct professionals, more often they have left them out of the conversations. On just about every campus there is a dean who, with other professionals, is stacking sandbags against a rising tide of conflict and accusation that threatens to drown any sense of trust — the very heart of learning. We have not figured it out, and honestly, from where I sit, admittedly in the bleachers, far away from the game, I’m not sure if we will. I do know that some very smart and very committed professionals continue to try, and I wish them well.
Not long ago, I found myself on a Zoom call with someone I was just meeting. He said he had read some of my articles over the years, and wondered what I thought about the recent reversal of OCR’s new campus sexual assault regulations. I wasn’t completely honest. I told him, “I don’t really think about it much at all, and am just glad not to have to figure out how to once again rewrite campus policy.” The second part of that is true — I’m glad I don’t have that difficult task to manage. But not the first part. I think about it a lot. I think about those parents, traveling from all over the United States to Phoenix that weekend, in search of someone who understood their pain and frustration. That they had to travel to find that kind of support haunts me. That they had to listen to my words when what they needed was to be heard breaks my heart.
My new Zoom friend replied, “yeah, probably best to put it all behind you.” And then we changed topics and continued our conversation.