The University of New Mexico failed to comply with federal law in handling sexual assault and harassment cases, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found.
The results of the federal inquiry, released Friday, paint a picture of significant incompetence on the part of UNM, in multiple offices.
“Our findings reveal how a flawed system for responding to sexual assault fails all those involved,” Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s civil rights division, said in a statement, “from victims seeking adequate protection, to accused students demanding fair hearings, to faculty looking for clear instruction.”
While the U.S. Department of Education has ramped up probes of how colleges handle sexual assaults in recent years, with more than 200 such investigations currently opening, a Justice Department inquiry is rare. The last one completed at a higher education institution was a joint investigation with the Education Department at the University of Montana, but that one also looked at how local police and prosecutors handled cases.
Colleges and universities are required under the gender equity law Title IX to respond to reports of sexual assault and harassment.
The DOJ investigation at UNM, in Albuquerque, began on Dec. 5, 2014, and looked at cases handled over a six-year period.
During much of that time, UNM had no written protocol on how long it should take with investigations, and cases often took twice as long to resolve as the 60-day timeframe recommended by the U.S. Department of Education. Both complainants and respondents were often not told about delays or why things were taking so long, the DOJ said.
“The United States found that after UNM received an allegation of sexual harassment, effective follow-through procedures were largely absent, both during [Office of Equal Opportunity]’s investigative period and after it issued findings,” the DOJ report said. “In addition, UNM does not have established protocols to ensure that information regarding investigations and findings are effectively conveyed to other departments and divisions on campus.”
In one case, the university’s own admissions office did not know that an undergrad applying for graduate school was currently under investigation for sexual misconduct, the report said.
Further problematic was that until the DOJ investigation, the OEO, which handled sexual assault investigations, reported to the office of the university's general counsel.
"This management structure created a conflict between OEO's stated goal of eliminating and redressing harassment and OUC's role in limiting the University's liability," the DOJ said.
Interim sanctions were inconsistent, according to the DOJ report. Sometimes they suggested against a temporary suspension because there was so much heat on the accused that school assumed the accused wouldn't be a threat to anyone. But in another matter, the DOJ said, "UNM suspended the respondent from campus during the pendency of the investigation, but told him that he could continue with his course work at home. However, no arrangement was made for him to take his tests off campus, and respondent did not know who to reach out to for assistance. As a result, he dropped all his classes and lost a semester of course work."
Students speaking with federal investigators accused campus police of gender bias, saying officers questioned victims about why they didn't do more to fight off their attackers or lectured them on why young women should not drink in public, the report said. UNM cops often believed at "face-level" the accused students' claims that victims consented and rarely challenged them, federal investigators found.
University administrators had similar sentiments, the DOJ said, sometimes describing victims as "lonely" or "clingy." In interviews, "University officials made several statements placing blame with students who are assaulted, reflecting a significant lack of understanding about the dynamics of sexual assault."
The DOJ will now require UNM to provide better and clearer information about reporting options for sexual violence, and disclose more details to students and staff on where to go for assistance or to begin grievance procedures. The university will also have to revise policies, procedures and investigative practices to ensure "prompt and equitable resolution of sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations."
In a statement Friday, UNM President Robert G. Frank disputed the DOJ report. He didn't explain what specifically was wrong with it, other than to say it was a "brief snapshot in time."
“While we respect the efforts of the DOJ, we believe its report is an inaccurate and incomplete picture of our university," Frank said.
While colleges are required under federal law to handle sexual assault reports from students, Frank complained that the school is being asked to do too much.
“Universities like UNM face the unattainable goal of stopping campus sexual assault. We are asked to be investigators and adjudicators of incredibly complex situations that typically involve alcohol or drugs, and frequently occur off our campus,” Frank said. "The reality is that federal regulations hold us to a higher standard than any city, any police department, or any court system, even though our primary mission is to provide high quality education, health care, and research. And we are asked to do it all without any additional financial support."
He did not acknowledge in his statement that the university did anything wrong.
Read the entire letter of findings from the investigation:
Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter who covers higher education and sexual violence and is based in New York. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.