University of Alaska signs voluntary resolution agreement with U.S. Education Department, receives letter of findings on Title IX violations

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen announced to the university community on Feb. 20 that the university had signed a voluntary resolution agreement (VRA) with the U.S. Department of Education. The agreement represents the culmination of a three-year compliance review by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of UA’s handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment incidents on its campuses.

In May 2014, OCR began its review of thousands of pages of documents submitted by the university as part of its examination of the university’s handling of reports of sexual harassment, including sexual violence.  As signed, the VRA lists 13 actionable items the university agreed to undertake, many of which have already begun or been completed. The university also released a 32-page “Letter of Findings," which outlined in detail the cases the OCR reviewed.

The VRA includes issues that the university publicly acknowledged in October 2015, after completing its own internal review of sexual assault cases.  The OCR noted that “the UA system has taken several significant actions to remedy noncompliance with Title IX.” 

“In January 2015 we commenced our own review of sexual assault cases at all three universities. That allowed us to self-identify serious problems and start our efforts to correct those problems. In October 2015 we became the only university in the country to publicly admit our shortcomings. Since then, we have been, and continue to be, committed to being a part of the solution. While we remain far from perfect, we are absolutely committed to making our campuses safer.”

The issues cited in OCR’s resolution agreement range from failing to promptly and thoroughly respond to complaints of sexual harassment, including sexual assault, to instances of incomplete investigations, to a failure to provide parties adequate interim measures or notifying the person who filed a Title IX complaint that his or her case had been resolved. The VRA also disclosed systemic failures or inconsistencies in documenting cases.  

The changes agreed to by the university cover a range of issues including: training and responsibilities of Title IX coordinators; updating and disseminating consistent policies; revamping and implementing Title IX grievance processes; designating a Title IX senior administrator to oversee Title IX compliance statewide; conducting regular campus climate checks to assess efforts to improve campus safety; ensuring that student interns and student workers are not placed in inappropriate settings and are aware of Title IX protections; and, reassessing and taking corrective action in a number of cases dating from 2011 to 2015.

In a letter to students and employees, Johnsen acknowledged that “we have a long way to go, but we continue to build capacity and improve our responses.” Johnsen also added a caution and request for help from the campus community, saying, “You also need to know that keeping our campuses safe is our responsibility. It requires that we adjudicate serious, difficult issues while carefully balancing the rights of each student involved. We must make decisions based on facts that will not all be known to the public. So even when we do all the right things, one or the other party, perhaps both, may be unhappy with the result. Recognizing that dynamic will allow us to better work together toward the ultimate goal, reducing incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault on our campuses.”

The Office for Civil Rights is reviewing the Title IX procedures of some 200 universities nationwide, including UA, and works to ensure equal access to education and promote educational excellence throughout the nation through the enforcement of civil rights. The office is responsible for enforcing federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination by educational institutions.

The VRA and Letter of Findings can be found at www.alaska.edu/titleIXcompliance.

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