This semester, the Title IX Office welcomed Bill Boerner as assistant vice president and Title IX coordinator. Boerner was hired following an extensive and rigorous search to fill the position vacated by former Title IX Coordinator Susan Lee, who retired at the end of last semester. His arrival on campus ensures that the Title IX Office, which also includes Deputy Title IX Coordinator Katie Stiffler and Title IX Fellow Regina Gesicki, remains fully staffed.
Boerner comes to the Colleges with 20 years of experience in higher education, most recently at SUNY Fredonia, where he worked as Chief Diversity Officer. In that role, Boerner also acted as Fredonia’s Title IX Coordinator, which involved handling reports of sexual violence and working on prevention.
After doing this work at Fredonia, Boerner realized that he wanted to focus more exclusively on Title IX. This led him to HWS, where he could work on Title IX and stay relatively close to Fredonia, where his partner still lives.
Before choosing to come to HWS, Boerner was aware of the 2014 New York Times article about the Colleges’ management of a sexual assault case and the institution’s response to that article.
“There was a lot of turmoil here that happened five years ago that warranted the institution looking at what they needed to change,” Boerner says. “I think a lot of efforts have been made to move in that direction, and with the retirement of the former Title IX director it was an opportune time for someone to come in with some fresh eyes, fresh energy, and move us into the next chapter.”
Boerner believes that he has the experience and skills to work with the rest of the Title IX Office to make this happen. “I like systems and structure, and I think there was some needed work to establish some further systems and structure in this area,” he says.
Some of this work has already begun. In addition to picking up on projects left over from Lee’s time as coordinator and learning how Title IX processes and protocol are implemented at HWS, Boerner has been thinking about changing the way the office does training.
Title IX is required by state and federal law to provide training to students and faculty. Some student populations, like athletes, leaders, and employees, require further training. Boerner knows that “some students are complaining about too much Title IX training.” For example, he says, “It gets really boring if you’re an athlete for four years and you’re seeing the same exact thing.
With this in mind, Boerner wants to implement a system for keeping trainings as new and engaging as possible. “I want us to have perhaps a three-year cycle of workshops specifically for athletes that are different,” he explains. “Obviously our resources haven’t vastly changed, our process hasn’t vastly changed, but there’s other things we can focus on.”
Boerner is also looking for ways to make the Title IX Office more transparent with regard to the data it provides for the community. While the Colleges do release annual statistics about reported sexual assaults, “the annual security report doesn’t paint the whole picture,” says Boerner. Disclosures made to the Title IX Office concerning off-campus instances of sexual violence, for example, do not make it into the report but are part of the office’s work in providing students with services and supports.
“To paint a more accurate picture of what’s going on in our campus, it would be wise for us to publish [this data] in some way,” Boerner argues. Along with Stiffler and Gesicki, he is working on figuring out how to make this information public without violating the privacy and trust of students who come forward to the office.
According to Boerner, trust is central to the function of the Title IX Office as a safe place for students to disclose their experiences. It is also, in his view, the reason why more cases of sexual assault have been reported in the past year.
Based on the Living Safely report, there were 13 reports of rape occurring on campus in 2017 and 23 in 2018, representing a 77 percent increase. “I fully anticipate that more reports of sexual violence will come to this office, and we will continue to see an increase in that, not necessarily because we’re seeing an increase of violence in our community, but because we’re establishing that HWS is a safe space to come forward and talk about these things and hold people accountable when we can,” says Boerner.
His broader aim as Title IX Coordinator is to make it less intimidating for students to come forward and work with Title IX. This involves making sure that students understand how the reporting and investigation processes work.
“I’m a neutral party, so I support all students who are involved in a situation, whether they’re coming forward about the situation or they’re accused, so sometimes the situation doesn’t go in the favor the person wants,” Boerner explains. He wants to make sure that students working with Title IX “would still feel heard, that they felt it was a fair process, that the process itself wasn’t a contributing factor to their trauma, and that they feel that after the process they can continue to be a productive member of our community, if they want to.”
Another large part of making students feel comfortable to come to Title IX for Boerner is building relationships with them, which he also sees as a large part of his role and one of his strengths. “I don’t want to just be stuck behind my desk all day. I want to talk with students and work to better our community in lots of ways,” he says.
One way in which Boerner has already been doing this work outside of Title IX is through the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force, which he co-chairs with Chaplain Nita Byrd. Created by President Jacobsen while the Colleges search for a new Chief Diversity Officer, the task force is moving forward with the goals established in the Strategic Diversity Plan.
“As the co-chair with the chaplain, Nita Byrd, we’re both new to this community,” Boerner says. “So I think it affords us fresh eyes to look at where we’ve been, where we’re going, and where we want to go. And I think that’s been really helpful.”
The task force is currently focusing on identifying what parts of the Strategic Diversity Plan to implement. To do so, it has been engaging with students and faculty, both whom it aims to include in its work.
Aside from his official roles on the task force and in Title IX, Boerner is interested in working to better the Colleges’ community in other ways. “I hope that people would see me as a person that they can talk to about these difficult things, and not necessarily just sexual violence,” Boerner says. “I’m excited to be part of this community.”