On Sept. 27, Chancellor Kent Syverud addressed University Senate at its first meeting of the Fall 2023 semester. His remarks were as follows: Thank you, Professor [Kira] Reed. It’s a pleasure to see so many of you in person. We’re…
Five Questions for Sheila Johnson-Willis, Chief Equal Opportunity and Title IX Officer
For students impacted by sexual and relationship violence, Sheila Johnson-Willis, associate vice president and chief equal opportunity and Title IX officer, wants them to know they are not alone.
“Help is always available, and it’s not a situation you have to navigate by yourself,” Johnson-Willis says.
Many support options and resources are available on campus for students, to ensure that they are able to take care of their immediate well-being, as well as provide them with reporting options.
Johnson-Willis’ office, the Office of Equal Opportunity, Inclusion and Resolution Services (EOIRS), offers students a way to report an incident, and its staff members also help guide students to other resources and assist with measures to ensure students’ well-being as they continue their academics. EOIRS also works with faculty and staff impacted by incidents of discrimination and harassment.
“Students often think if they report, all these things have to happen or they have to report in order to get support—but this is not the case,” Johnson-Willis says. “Regardless of whether students want to proceed criminally or through an administrative process, there are support options available.”
In this Q&A, Johnson-Willis explains more about her role and the work of her office, how it assists students and how students can seek help.
Q: What is your role as Title IX officer?
A: As Title IX officer [also referred to as Title IX coordinator], my primary role is ensuring that we’re creating a safe and welcoming space for all of our community members—students, faculty and staff, as well as guests. In that role, I respond to complaints of discrimination, including sexual harassment, sexual assault and relationship violence, and I oversee the processes we have to address inappropriate conduct.
The Office of Equal Opportunity, Inclusion and Resolution Services ensures that those who are impacted receive desired and available supports on or off campus, and that the University provides a prompt response. We create a pathway to deter future behavior of a similar nature.
As an impartial unit, our team is tasked with fact gathering to try to understand what occurred so the University can take appropriate next steps to address conduct or issues.
We investigate complaints of discrimination (including sexual and relationship violence) with compassion, issue investigative reports and provide that information to appropriate decisionmakers. With students, those decisionmakers would be the hearing officers in the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. For faculty, it would be the associate provost’s office, and, for staff members, it’s the business partners within the Office of Human Resources.
We also make community members aware of the policies and procedures that we have in place to address these kinds of incidents.
Q: How does EOIRS assist students who have been impacted by sexual or relationship violence?
A: Our office is primarily responsible for helping students understand their rights and options through the University’s Title IX processes, and we investigate all formal complaints lodged by the parties or the University on a student’s behalf. We also assist students affected by sexual and relationship violence by connecting them with the appropriate resources on or off campus. In doing this, we work very closely with the Dean of Students Office and the Sexual and Relationship Violence Response Team at the Barnes Center at The Arch.
We also assist students by taking measures to further assist or protect them. As the Title IX Coordinator, I can request on their behalf that certain actions be taken by the institution, such as assisting with a housing relocation or a no contact order, which will prevent the other party from having any intentional direct or indirect contact with them. I also connect them with the Dean of Students Office if there is some sort of academic accommodation that needs to take place.
We allow the student to drive the process, that means making sure they are connected with other campus offices and ensuring that their academic experience isn’t more greatly impacted by the incident. We provide them the support and whatever is necessary to assist them in remaining on campus and feeling safe. Our office is also responsible for conducting training and awareness opportunities, in concert with other offices, to reduce, limit and prevent incidents from occurring on our campus.
Q: How is your office different from other resources on campus?
A: Our office differs from other offices on campus because of our responsibility to assist in ensuring that the environment is a safe and welcoming place, while also determining if there is additional action that the institution needs to take. That differs from such resources as the Sexual and Relationship Violence Response Team and health care providers at the Barnes Center at The Arch that are confidential and privileged support options.
Other offices deal with students (and all members of our community) on more of an individual level. In my role as the Title IX officer, it’s more of a balancing act because there is an overarching responsibility for our community holistically, along with the individual, with any decision or action we take.
Q: What would you say to a student who has experienced sexual violence but is uncertain what to do or confused by the options?
A: I would encourage a student in that situation to seek support through the Sexual and Relationship Violence Response Team. By connecting with those individuals, students can ask questions, become familiar with the role of the Title IX officer and their rights, and understand the various options they can elect to pursue.
By first connecting with those resources, there is a level of education and support that’s offered. Students need to know that they do not have to navigate this complicated and traumatic experience alone. There are a number of people who can help.
Even through my office, we are trying to answer those questions so students can make the most informed decision about what would be best for them right now or after some time has passed as they go through the healing process.
Q: What is the most important thing you want students to know when they reach out for support from your office?
A: The most important thing for students to know is that their health and well-being is a priority for us. We want to support them and their academic endeavors and to make sure their environment is safe and harassment free. By reaching out to us, our goal is to provide the necessary information so that they can make an informed decision and identify what will work best for them, in that moment, and be a liaison between any University resources and supports that they may need.
There are many things we can do even if a student decides they don’t want to do a formal process. We want people to seek out the help.
By educating our entire community, we hope to inform those who are impacted, as well as those who are supporting those who have been impacted, so they will share the information with their friend.
If you have been impacted by sexual or relationship violence, find the full range of resources and supports listed on the Barnes Center at The Arch website.