Living Feminist Theory at Grinnell: The go-to team for colleges looking to avoid the courtroom

In April 2011, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a guidance document, known as the “Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL), that reminded institutions receiving federal funding of their responsibility to respond promptly and effectively to sexual harassment and sexual violence in accordance with the requirements of Title IX. Although the document did not add any requirements to the already existing law, it indicated that the OCR would increase its efforts at enforcing compliance with Title IX. Over the past few years, these increased enforcement efforts—combined with student activism and negative coverage in the media—have prompted institutions to reassess their policies regarding sexual harassment and sexual violence.

The growing awareness of institutional mishandlings of sexual assault has given rise to an industry comprised of consultants offering legal advice to colleges about their “institutional response to sexual misconduct.” At the vanguard of this industry are former sex crimes prosecutors Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez. Although both spent nearly 20 years working for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, Smith and Gomez are now partners at Pepper Hamilton, a Center City law firm that specializes in white-collar litigation. At Pepper, the duo has represented a number of colleges that have been accused of mishandling sexual assault, including Amherst, Occidental, and most recently, the University of Virginia.

While Smith and Gomez claim that their commitment to “compassionate practices” reflects their “personal sense of justice,” the team of attorneys has come under fire recently, particularly among activists and advocates for survivors of sexual assault (1). Complainants and activists are concerned that schools have been hiring “Smith and Gomez to clean up messes by paying lip service to federal compliance” (2). According to these critics, the “compassionate” and “integrated” practices championed by Smith and Gomez are a mask for further institutional mishandlings. That Smith and Gomez show a greater concern for rescuing a school’s “institutional identity” than they do for survivors is no conspiracy theory. Indeed, Smith and Gomez were hailed by The American Attorney as the go-to team for institutions looking to “avoid the courtroom.”

After a group of students raised concerns about the handling of sexual misconduct cases at Grinnell in May 2012, the College hired Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez to conduct an external review of its Title IX policies. These lawyers met with a number of students, staff members and administrators and produced a report shortly afterwards. In an email summarizing the results of this report, Smith wrote, “Our review of the policies and procedures in place show us that there is work to be done, but our interactions with Grinnellians have given us every confidence that the work is well within Grinnell’s reach” (3).

Though this step may seem positive, we urge members of the campus community to remain suspicious of any external review that has been solicited and paid for by the College. Smith and Gomez have also been criticized for advising colleges to use tactics that target Title IX activists. This criticism seems particularly relevant for the Grinnell context in light of a recent campus memo that was sent out before spring break. This memo condemned racist and anti-survivor harassment on social media in response to the Huffington Post, and covertly suggested that Title IX activists may have been responsible for posting racist hate speech on Yik Yak. Far from creating a safer campus climate for all students, this memo had the immediate effect of escalating harassment against survivors and allies on campus. Though we cannot say with certainty that Leslie Gomez and Gina Smith were involved in this memo, it seems clear that it relied on similar strategies that the pair have used at colleges such as Occidental.

Recently, the College hired two other external reviewers, John Brittain and Jane Lopez, to investigate the social media harassment that surfaced before spring break. This week, the Title IX office extended personal invitations to a small group of students to meet with the reviewers. Given the growing business of quick Title IX “fixes” on college campuses, and Grinnell’s recent history with external reviewers, we are hesitant about this investigation. Why has the College not publicly announced to students, alumni, parents, and faculty that this investigation is taking place? After all, the College has a history of publicizing—to the point of aggrandizing—its (often lackluster) attempts to improve Title IX enforcement. Though we are encouraged that the College seems to take instances of harassment seriously, we will remain skeptical of this and other Grinnell-funded “investigations” until they result in immediate, tangible outcomes that improve the safety of current students on campus.