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How to Navigate When Title IX and Cancel Culture Clash

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Title IX promotes gender equity in educational settings and requires schools to ensure that programs and activities are free from gender discrimination. To comply with Title IX, schools have to stay current with the changes each new White House administration enacts. The Trump administration took a formal approach, using the full notice and comment rulemaking process to create a set of legally binding Title IX regulations as contrasted with the Obama administration’s preference for issuing Dear Colleagues Letters (DCL), which were merely guidance for schools to follow.

Under the present regulations, Title IX Coordinators and administrators are continuously trying to find a balance between the institutional Title IX obligations and meeting the expectations and demands of the campus or school community. Community members expect full transparency of investigations, swift resolutions of complaints, and optional engagement in training and prevention efforts, all of which carry prescribed, federal compliance mandates that may not coincide with these community expectations. Achieving a balance between expectations and compliance realities has always been a struggle. However, the stakes are higher now for Title IX offices, schools, and colleges because of the explosion of cancel culture.

Cancel culture, referred to by a variety of descriptors, is best defined as boycotting those in positions of authority or power when their public speech or behavior goes against popular doctrinaire or mainstream beliefs. There is much debate on college campuses about cancel culture and its impact. Is cancel culture an attempt to suppress free speech or the exercise of free speech? It’s both, but regardless of one’s perspective on the merits or demerits of cancel culture, it is creating situations where Title IX Coordinators and school administrators are being cancelled for attempting to maintain an equitable Title IX environment.

At a university in Rhode Island, for example, students pressured a campus administrator to submit their letter of resignation for publicly addressing a professor’s comments on the use of pronouns. At another university, a Title IX Coordinator was publicly called incompetent for addressing a complainant who took to social media to express her dislike for a process that included cross-examination. And finally, at a university in Virginia, a Title IX Coordinator was forced to resign for addressing a faculty member’s LGBTQ+ comments. These are just a few examples of what many Title IX Coordinators and campus administrators face when cancel culture confronts Title IX’s compliance.

It is a difficult task to address speech or behavior that is counter to institutional obligations under Title IX. While the complexity that cancel culture brings to an already challenging set of responsibilities makes Title IX Coordinators’ and campus administrators’ jobs even more politically charged, the following recommendations can help to bridge public expectations and compliance obligations:

  • Be strategic with your campus training on Title IX. Ensure the campus community has a full understanding of what is required of institutions to comply with Title IX. The community may not like it, but they need to understand what is required and that Title IX administrators have very little latitude under the 2020 Regulations. 

  • Include in-depth training on the role of the Title IX Coordinator and members of the Title IX team, especially with respect to the support functions they offer.

  • Know the scope and limitations of the First Amendment and how it potentially impacts Title IX processes and institutional goals and priorities. In June, ATIXA will be teaching a new mini-course on navigating the intersection of transgender rights, free speech, and religious freedom. Courses like this prepare Title IX Coordinators to navigate situations in which rights to trans-inclusion and trans-exclusion are variously supported by different civil rights law.

  • Develop protocols for addressing cancel culture/free speech, in partnership with other campus constituents. Title IX administrators must assess and try to anticipate where the lightning rod issues are for your campus, and then coordinate with campus partners such as legal counsel, the communication office, and others to ensure that messaging doesn’t cross a line unless you intend it to. Activists may expect you to take sides in a tough dispute where you cannot take sides. Not taking any side is to them as unacceptable as taking the wrong side, so your job is to help the community to better understand what will happen if an office like yours loses its neutrality. Ironically, the only way for you to support them and their goals is by staying above the political fray. Whether you can help them see that depends on very skillful messaging.

  • Establish an education program—in partnership with the Chief Diversity Officer or the department or person overseeing diversity, equity, and inclusion—that includes resources, tools, and mechanisms for working through difficult conversations that involve opposing opinions.

  • Recognize that opposing opinions on any given subject matter add value and richness to the educational experience.

  • Educate members of the campus community on speech and behaviors that constitute discrimination or harassment under the institution’s policy or under state or federal laws, while also helping the community to understand that exclusionary or even hate speech can often be legally protected.

  • Provide safe locations on campus for individuals to express their feelings when confronted with opposing opinions and beliefs, while avoiding making yourself the sole target for both (or all) sides.

Cancel culture may be new terminology but is not new in practice—neither is Title IX compliance. Title IX Coordinators and campus administrators will be better positioned to smoothly navigate the two when they take strategic, well-informed approaches that:

  • Master the art of supporting without taking sides.
  • Show that you understand all arguments around an issue.
  • Recognize the humanity of the participants who are in conflict, the pain they are likely experiencing, and the often fundamental values that those in conflict perceive to be at issue.
  • Create ground rules for public forums, and don’t get sucked into social media flameouts you cannot possibly emerge from unscathed.
  • Be consistent in messaging.
  • Be centralized in your communications. Prevent making employees from rogue public comments, where possible.
  • Timely respond.
  • Offer to meet with your detractors. Use intermediaries who can open paths to communication. Get out ahead of the conflict whenever possible.
  • Sharpen your negotiation skills to respond to unreasonable demands.
  • Try not to let a person or group make you responsible for solving a problem you can’t solve. Pivot with agility, deflect when necessary, and own it when you have to.
  • If you’re going to apologize, get it right. Be sincere and authentic. Explain why you should have a chance at redemption.
  • Remember that surviving is winning, but an attempt to cancel you can weaken your role, even if you survive to fight another day.

When it comes to Title IX compliance, there will always be differing opinions on how institutions should handle inflammatory situations. By consistently providing factual, detailed, educational opportunities for members of your campus to be well-informed about Title IX laws and institutional compliance obligations, you can narrow the risk of cancellation.

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