New leadership in Office of Equity Issues, full-time Title IX investigator position remains vacant

By Anna Busalacchi, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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The Office of Equity Issues, an office of two people, is undergoing a complete turnaround with new employees after the former Title IX coordinator at the college, Verron Fisher, left in May of this year for a position as the Title IX deputy director at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Dean of Students Douglas Eck said since Fisher left the college, the Office of Equity Issues, which deals with reports of sexual misconduct and discrimination, has had an interim Title IX coordinator and interim Title IX investigator, until recently when a new full-time Title IX coordinator was hired. 

Neil Callicoat, the new director of the Office of Equity Issues and Title IX coordinator, began in his position on Aug. 10 and said the goal now is to hire a full-time investigator, for which interviews are currently underway.

Orterio Villa, former interim Title IX coordinator and former director of Student Organizations and Leadership, recently left the college. Heading into the fall semester, Nissan Wasfie, director of Student Communications, will remain in his role as interim Title IX investigator until the position is filled.

“I want to make sure that we’re putting the right person in the role [of Title IX investigator] as opposed to putting someone in as soon as possible,” Callicoat said. “There’s a much heavier weight on getting the right person than getting the first person. I’m very hopeful that we’ll find someone.”

Callicoat said he has already administered an hour-long training with student resident assistants, making sure they understand Title IX and their role to report an instance as well as the resources available for students. He has plans to do more training for other faculty and student groups on campus. 

With years of experience working in different roles in the education industry, Callicoat said he began doing Title IX-based work about five years ago and recently left his position as deputy Title IX coordinator at DeVry University. He received his bachelor’s degree at Northern Illinois University in organizational management and his master’s degree in business administration at the Keller Graduate School of Management. He is also a certified Title IX coordinator and civil rights investigator under the Association of Title IX Administrators, or ATIXA.

Callicoat said he feels strongly about Title IX rights and ensuring all students have equal access to their education.

“I think that Title IX is very important, and everyone should at least have an understanding of what Title IX is, what it isn’t and how to reach out if you need resources or to make a report,” Callicoat said. “I want to make sure that everyone on campus has at least that baseline understanding of what our office does.”

On July 8, President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim wrote a letter to faculty, staff and students outlining the findings of an investigation by the Mayer Brown law firm of alleged sexual misconduct toward former faculty member Cara Dehnert by former Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Sam Weller that resulted in his termination, as reported by the Chronicle.

Mayer Brown also reviewed the college’s Title IX and Human Resources processes after Dehnert said she told Human Resources “everything” in February 2020 and heard nothing back prior to making her allegations public.

In the letter, Kim stated that “the review by Mayer Brown identified areas for improvement in the college’s handling of sexual misconduct and related allegations.” These included centralizing key functions that fall under the umbrella of Title IX, strengthening Title IX training on an individual and community level and boosting overall awareness of the Title IX office, among other things toward “fostering a safe and secure community.”

Callicoat said he has “surface level familiarity” with the Weller investigation and has had conversations with people about it. He declined to name with whom these conversations were held.

“There has been a lot of discussion here about the things that we can do to help better improve our reporting and our response, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do,” Callicoat said. “One of my first action items here in the first couple of months is to really review our [Title IX] policy to see if I have any input that I can put into it.”

In an email to the Chronicle sent on July 28, Chief of Staff Laurent Pernot said the college is in the process of selecting outside experts to help “further think through possible structural and procedural enhancements to our handling of Title IX and related issues and to conduct additional training sessions on campus in coming weeks and months.”

However, Pernot said the experts have not yet been selected, and they have not finalized which campus groups will receive training, although they are looking at both employee and student groups.

Eck said he did not receive prior notice to the letter Kim sent on changes being made to the college’s Title IX process, and that some of the information was “unknown” to him.

“I think what Dr. Kim has communicated is what every institution is striving toward,” Eck said. “We don’t want to have a bureaucratic process. We don’t want to have silos of separation in how we address Title IX issues.”

Eck said Title IX training for various faculty and student groups on campus is a “paramount priority” moving forward and that students can expect more engagement from the office this fall.

Charee Mosby-Holloway, the director of Student Diversity and Inclusion and a confidential resource on campus, was a part of the search committee for new employees in the Office of Equity Issues, along with Eck.

Mosby-Holloway said she is not aware of the conversations being had about strengthening Title IX processes at the college, but said she is hopeful that the institution will put in the work to improve any gaps that may exist in the Title IX processes and procedures.

“Just given my experience that generally when a student is coming to me, something horrible has happened to them; they’ve gone through a really difficult, sometimes very traumatic experience,” Mosby-Holloway said, speaking of her role as a confidential resource. “If we have a process that is re-traumatizing someone, I think it creates so many barriers for folks to come forward to seek the support and resources they need.”

Mosby-Holloway said ensuring awareness of Title IX and the resources accessible to students is key.

“It affects everyone in our community whether faculty, staff [or] student. It’s unfortunate, but no one is immune from sexual violence or sexual assault or harassment,” Mosby-Holloway said. “And so I think getting information out there is really important.”

Additional resources regarding sexual misconduct can be found here.