Since the findings of a Title IX investigation came to light in March, a once powerful professor has been exposed, five Jane Does have filed a federal lawsuit, and the University of Alaska system's handling of Title IX complaints has been put under a public microscope.

In an interview with KTVA, UA President Jim Johnsen discussed the following: 

  • The issue of sexual harassment and assault in the world of academia 
  • The University's process for receiving Title IX reports 
  • What students should expect from Title IX Offices 
  • A recent uptick in reports to UA Title IX Offices 
  • How UA is addressing new reports stemming from old instances of misconduct 

In 2014, the University of Alaska was one of several colleges across the country chosen by the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights for an audit of Title IX compliance. When Johnsen stepped into his role in 2015, the issue of the University's compliance with Title IX was the first thing placed on his desk. 

"We disclosed," he said. "We were the first university in the country to disclose proactively, prior to the conclusion of the compliance review, that we had problems and that we were going to set out to address those problems." 

In February 2017, a letter from the Office of Civil Rights outlined past failures, and UA entered into an agreement with the OCR that included the re-opening of 23 sexual assault and harassment cases. 

In an email Wednesday, Associate Vice President of Public Affairs Roberta Graham responded to a request regarding the final outcomes of those cases:  

"With regard to the 23 cases, it is critical to note that not all were reports of sexual assaults– they were 23 allegations of sexual harassment, some of which were sexual assaults. Realizing most people immediately rush to construe the number in terms of rapes or assaults, it's important to make the distinction. Having said that, the answer is yes, disciplinary action did result from the reopening of the 23 cases. [...] 

Only a portion of the 23 cases in the [the agreement] required re-investigation. In some of those, we contacted complainants and they did not want UA to take further action, and we honored that desire when it was legally appropriate to do so.

In some of the others, the respondent or aggressor had no affiliation with UA, so there was no jurisdiction to investigate. In the remaining cases that we reopened and the complainant agreed and UA had jurisdiction, we conducted an investigation and afforded both parties due process under UA policy. As a result of those investigations we expelled or suspended or revoked degrees for students in 6 cases, with one case having multiple suspensions/expulsions. Some cases that we investigated did not result in a finding of responsibility, so no sanction was imposed." 

Graham said the entire university system received 504 Title IX reports in the 2019 fiscal year, an increase from 165 in fiscal year 2015. Only a portion of the reports, however, are determined to be violations of Title IX.  

According to a Title IX compliance scorecard for the University of Alaska Anchorage campus, the Title IX Office received 86 reports between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018, while only eight met the requirements for further action. None of the cases had resulted in disciplinary actions or sanctions at the time of the report.  

Sara Childress, who serves as the director of UAA's Title IX Office, previously said they received three times as many reports during the fall 2018 semester than in the fall 2017 semester. 

"As a result of our leadership really voicing their expectations really clearly, our reports went up instantly," she said. "And that doesn't mean incidents went up drastically, it means folks started to report what I call 'yellow flags,' which is exactly what I want."

Childress described yellow flags as concerning behaviors that occur before an escalation that creates harm.

"Historically, we got reports after something terrible had happened," Childress explained. "And now we're getting reports about concerning behaviors." 

President Johnsen said they're also receiving reports of misconduct from years — and in some cases decades — prior, prompting them to implement a new policy for addressing older cases. 

When asked what he would say to a victim of sexual misconduct, Johnsen responded:

"I'm sorry. I mean these are tragedies, right? They can't be fixed today so simply. People have been hurt. And we as an organization, we as people, can do our very best to help them, to grieve with them, but it's not fair. I don't think the system is fair yet, frankly. And it pains me to say that. That said, at the University of Alaska, anyway, we are going to be relentless in dealing with these cases and also as supportive and compassionate as we can be to the victims in these matters."   

Lawyers for the university have filed a partial motion to dismiss some of the claims in the federal lawsuit, arguing the university system is entitled to sovereign immunity. While David Yesner, the professor named in the suit, is seeking to get all claims against him dismissed.

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