When Vice President Joe Biden visited Pitt in April, encouraging students to fight rape culture on campus, he was speaking during a year that seemed promising for the future of sexual assault services at colleges nationwide.
Pitt had opened the Office of Diversity and Inclusion only a few months prior and hired its first full-time Title IX Coordinator, Katie Pope. The office has since screened films about differently abled people and hosted speakers, usually in partnership with other programs, such as the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program.
In the same year, Pitt released the results of the 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, which showed that 21 percent of female undergraduate students, 6.2 percent of undergraduate males and 19.6 percent of undergraduate transgender, gender-queer, gender-nonconforming and questioning students –– as well as students not represented in these categories –– experienced nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching during college.
At the time of Pope’s hire, Pam Connelly, who formerly filled the Title IX Coordinator position part time, said rising statistics about campus sexual assault were shocking and that Pope would be implementing initiatives to foster a safe environment at Pitt.
“It’s essential to be collaborative … to be a resource, to be available, to learn from [people all across campus],” Pope told The Pitt News about designing sexual assault initiatives.
Pitt had also made efforts to make the campus more accommodating for students based on their gender and sexual identity. Ruskin Hall became the first gender-neutral dorm on campus and in September 2015, Pitt announced that students, faculty and staff could use restrooms based on the gender they identify with anywhere on campus.
But President-elect Donald Trump’s comments about women, especially his interview with Billy Bush in which he admitted to groping women without their consent and his vice president’s history of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments have made many worry that this progress will stall or lessen in the next four years.
While chair of the English Department, Don Bialostosky, said in a speech following Trump’s election that Pope had told him she was worried her position would be revoked, she now says she’s not worried that there will be major changes in that regard.
Rather, she was concerned about the emphasis — or lack of emphasis — the incoming administration will put on Title IX issues.
Kristen Houser, media head for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said she is also concerned about the future of Title IX.
Houser said although Title IX has been around since the early ’70s, it’s “guess work” to predict how President-elect Trump’s administration will manage Title IX enforcement and funding.
“The unknown factor is whether or not the new [Trump] administration will keep the same priorities, and whether or not they will provide the resources to resolve all the open cases,” Houser said.
Pitt, like other universities, does not receive any direct federal or state funding to help abide by the Title IX guidelines and to provide related services. The Title IX Office, as a part of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, receives funding from the University’s budget.
The Obama administration made sexual assault awareness and prevention a cornerstone of its advocacy efforts on college campuses, seen particularly when Biden and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan published a Dear Colleague letter in 2011 that included a set of guidelines for universities to follow when handling sexual violence on campus.
The guidelines — which are intended to help universities meet Title IX obligations — included ways universities could inform students of their options after an assault and ways they could go about conducting prompt investigations. The guidelines were meant to provide a safer environment for survivors, who often face significant obstacles after an assault.
“The federal government gives direction to universities about enforcing Title IX,” Houser said. “The current administration has made it a priority, and they’ve said that when 20 percent of the population is having a life-altering experience on campus, we need to respond to it.”
Survivors often have difficulty sleeping, eating, going out in public and knowing who they can trust, which — for survivors who are also students — can have a negative impact on their schoolwork, according to Houser.
“[Survivors] can’t stay focused or concentrate, so how will they be able to study for a test or write an essay?” Houser said. “It is absolutely appropriate that students be given accommodations for their education.”
Pope has said that regardless of how much emphasis the Trump administration places on Title IX issues, the University will not stray away from making sure that the campus is a safe environment for survivors.
“[Sexual harassment and sexual misconduct] have always happened on campuses, but the last eight years have given exposure in a way that hadn’t been done before,” Pope said. “The work is always going to be there, and we’re going to continue to do it. You can’t just bottle it back up.”
Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972, protects the rights of American citizens against discrimination. It states that no educational institution that receives federal funds can discriminate on the basis of sex — meaning that, regardless of a student’s gender or sex, they cannot be excluded from participation, denied benefits or be subjected to any discrimination.
In 2011, the Office for Civil Rights extended its Title IX guidelines to include duties to protect against any sexual misconduct, in addition to gender-based discrimination.
Pope said the Title IX office is also eligible for private grants or grants from the state.
“We have been fortunate recipients for three different grants, one of which was through the organization Futures Without Violence, and another one was through Governor Wolf’s It’s On Us campaign,” Pope said.
Pope said regardless of the change in federal administration, the Title IX Office plans to work to increase reporting, improve the campus climate and improve gender equity at Pitt by tackling cases individually and understanding the specific needs of students.
Despite increased attention, the need for sexual assault services has certainly not diminished. There are 288 active sexual violence investigations at 215 colleges across the United States as of Dec. 4, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Title IX tracker.
Shamanta Mostofa, a senior neuroscience and chemistry double major, is the president of the Pitt Genocide Relief and Awareness Club, which hosted the Pitt Breaking Out campaign Saturday. The campaign featured stories of sexual assault survivors at Pitt.
Mostofa and and the club’s vice president, Jayne Lester, are worried that the University’s efforts — many of which have been about awareness raising — might not be enough to counteract rape culture on campus under the new administration.
As Trump takes office, Lester, a senior history and global studies double major, said she wants Pitt to be more proactive in interacting with students and making it clearer that they are taking action against the sexual misconduct.
“The words [Pitt’s] saying are good, but the action is missing,” Lester said.
Because Trump’s voter base did not take his comments about groping women or the accusations of sexual assault levied against him seriously enough to withdraw their support, Lester worried that the progress that’s been made in defining sexual assault is in jeopardy.
“The University might not pull funding for Title IX, but there is still a culture of victim blaming,” Lester said. “You can say that the president-elect is [only] one person, but there is a group of people that feels comfortable with expressing those same thoughts and their voice is getting louder.”