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Facing and Combating Implicit Biases in Student Conduct



By Ange Concepcion and Tommy Tressler-Gelok 


This reflective article will focus on an institutionally-specific reflection surrounding the changing nature of student accountability, expectations and behaviors as a result of the recent global and social pandemics facing contemporary American higher education. The authors have taken particular strides over the past 3 years to place student-centered experiences at the core of the conduct process. This included strengthening a partnership with campus safety, challenging implicit biases from paraprofessionals approaching students, and implementing informal feedback from students who have gone through the conduct process. Finally, the authors seek to explore how their awareness of macro cultural elements have forced them to change the ways in which they approach policy enforcement, student conduct initiatives, training and overall findings (Alvesson, 2011; Driskill, 2019; Sackmann, 2011; Schein & Schein, 2017).
 

Over the last decade, the student conduct process has shifted towards a legalized approach, especially given the increased attention on addressing sexual assault and Title IX compliance on college campuses (Chmielewski, 2013; Lake, 2017; Silbaugh, 2015).  As multidisciplinary conduct officers, the authors are rooted in a student-centered approach, wherein we strive to ensure our students are treated with dignity and respect.  However, there are instances where our processes fall short and meaningful changes, starting with difficult internal reflection and conversations, need to occur.

 

This reflective article will focus on an institutionally-specific reflection surrounding the changing nature of student accountability, expectations and behaviors as a result of the recent global and social pandemics facing contemporary American higher education. The authors have taken particular strides over the past 3 years to place student-centered experiences at the core of the conduct process. This included strengthening a partnership with campus safety, challenging implicit biases from paraprofessionals approaching students, and implementing informal feedback from students who have gone through the conduct process. Finally, the authors seek to explore how their awareness of macro cultural elements have forced them to change the ways in which they approach policy enforcement, student conduct initiatives, training and overall findings (Alvesson, 2011; Driskill, 2019; Sackmann, 2011; Schein & Schein, 2017). 

 

Thematic elements of specific reflective inquiry will focus on the experience of black and brown students in the student conduct process, the purposeful education of board members on implicit biases, and an alignment of institutionally-specific student outcomes. 

 

The course of this discussion will focus on systemic and cultural ways in which student conduct administrators can begin thinking about their process and how it relates to the experience of marginalized student identities on their campus. First a discussion on legalism and Title IX will be presented, followed by some elements of organizational culture student conduct professionals should have in mind when doing this work. It will conclude with a reflection from the authors on how they began this process and its continuation. 

 

College administrators that oversee and manage the student conduct process do so with the intention of maintaining the health and safety of the campus community by promoting student responsibility and accountability. While the philosophy of student conduct is positioned on educating students on impacts of their decision making, a number of institutions within the last decade have found themselves on the receiving end of litigation and using legal counsel to defend their student conduct decisions (Griffin, 2018). This move in student conduct processes to mirror or borrow elements from the legal system may be attributed to how federal regulatory authority over higher education increased due to Title IX compliance mandates (Lake, 2017).

 

Though Title IX interpretation and guidance from the Office of  Civil Rights typically change as federal administrations change, the April 2011 Dear Colleague Letter sparked an exponential pace of discussions on sexual misconduct in higher education and moved further by national headlines on such cases (Caldwell, 2017; Lake, 2017; Silbaugh, 2015). Since the April 2011 Dear Colleague Letter (DCL 2011), the Office of Civil Rights emphasized the importance of legal compliance, otherwise institutions risk the loss of federal funding (Ali, 2011; Chmielewski, 2013; Ellman-Golan, 2017; Lake, 2017; Smith, 2016). However, some institutions have been accused of being aggressive in investigation and adjudication due to the fear of losing funding and enrollment if found not in compliance (Mangan, 2015). Critics of DCL 2011 have argued that student conduct administrators tend to lack a legal background and that preponderance of evidence was too low of a standard and inherently favored reporting parties (Caldwell, 2017; Chmielewski, 2013; Mangan, 2017; Morris, 2017; Smith 2016). 

 

The May 2020 Title IX Final Regulations marked another major shift in Title IX compliance after nearly two years since the announcement of the November 2018 Proposed Regulations. A number of college administrators sought advice from legal counsel to review and update processes; the ASCA list-serv was also a heavily sought out resource for colleagues as the August 14th, 2020, deadline neared. 

 

Aside from meeting expectations with the final regulations and the necessity of conferring with legal counsel on training, grievance process, and student handbook updates, critical individual and group reflection needs to occur, especially among leading campus administrators that are responsible for our conduct processes:

 
  • What (and how) do we say we are committed to the protection and safety of all of our students? (That does not come at the cost of emphasizing compliance over the person?)
  • How do implicit biases (examples: race, gender, sexual orientation) influence our response in crisis and in adjudication? How can we ensure our protocols and processes are consistent and equitable?

  • What data does the institution have that demonstrates effectiveness of training and prevention?

 

Social change and Organizational change


Beginning a reflection on your student conduct process requires a strategic, influential, and transparent look at your organization and your organizational culture. In the early onsets of your reflection, understanding the fabric of who, what, and why your organization functions as it relates to social justice is an absolute critical component of your process. Unfortunately, there is no cookie cutter process, no pinwheel of understanding that a small task force or staff meeting can solve. The work begins with you. To frame this understanding and begin your personal reflection on the awareness, knowledge, and skills that it takes to do this work, the authors have highlighted some critical literature and models for how one can look at their conduct process through a lens of social change within their organizational culture. 


To frame the conversation, we have selected Battilana and Kimsey's (2017) framework for our individuals to participate in movements for social change. Using three personality types, the authors seek to demonstrate pathways and strategies a person can employ. The first is the
agitator who “brings the grievances of specific individuals or groups to the forefront of public awareness.” The second archetype is the innovator who “creates actionable solutions to address these grievances” and the third is the orchestrator who “coordinates action across groups, organizations, and sectors to scale the proposed solution” (p.2-3). 


So we ask, who are you in your organization? How can you leverage one of  these archetypes in the process? Are you an agitator? Someone who is comfortable saying the unsaid and bringing awareness to the issue. Or are you an innovator? Someone who can brainstorm, create solutions, and emphasize strategy? Or are you an orchestrator? Someone who can bring people together and come up with plans. 


As you present your agitator, innovator, or orchestrator perspective to your reflection, it is natural for a response to be “a little bit of all three.” That is okay. But now shift into thinking about these archetypes as it relates to your elemental influence in your organization.  To be an influential, impactful leader within this space, a person needs to be a strategic, and intentional, advocate and supporter of marginalized identity groups and representation within their societies. In tandem, a leader who works at the intersections of social justice has a responsibility to mentor others, teach peers and lead their respective communities to build networks of change agents fighting for equity and understanding.Within student conduct, as Peter Parker once said, this is an extraordinary responsibility. 


Once you have done a personal inventory on your perspectives and your own awareness of who you are, you have to shift your perspective and your focus on the micro- and macro-cultural principles impacting your organization. When thinking of organizational culture, Alvesson (2011) uses the binoculars metaphor. Think of this within your student conduct process. Taking the time to look at microscopically, but you can focus in or out on the specific area in the larger context. This is where you will have opportunities to identify areas of change and begin seeing the opportunity for success, transformation, and innovation of your conduct process. We recommend you stop here and look at a recent conduct case or a board hearing. Look at the case and then mentally adjust your scope and see if there are any micro- or macro-level factors that could come in here. Is there a bias? Is the process set up for a particular student to fail? Why did the events transpire? In just a few moments of honest reflection, you will start to see things differently just by adjusting your binoculars. 


As you complete your survey of the land, your orchestrator, agitator, or innovator hat in hand, the time has come for you to find colleagues who can work with you to evaluate your conduct process. Getting new eyes on your data, putting together focus groups, and asking for honest, candid feedback is all part of the process. This process is going to be uncomfortable; changing your organization is uncomfortable (Driskill, 2019). However, building evidence based practices that seek to determine and diversify your student conduct process is worth it. To build this evidence, find the people who know your culture well. This does not have to be a person who has been at the institution for their career, but people with a good grasp on the organization's culture. Not just the players in the game. Is there a housing and residence life staff member who knows the students well and can speak to their experiences? Is an affinity group advisor a fierce advocate for inclusion? Does a professor teach a course of social justice in contemporary society? Knowing the culture begins with knowing you cannot name the culture alone; a team of practitioners and stakeholders can be the impactful to really look at the organizational culture (Alvesson, 2011; Driskill, 2019; Sackmann, 2011; Schein & Schein, 2017). 

 

Reflection on 2016, 2017, and 2018


It is important to begin our reflection with an important caveat. In our organization, residence life and housing has a deep interconnectedness with student conduct and Title IX response. Wagner College, a four year, small, highly residential liberal arts college in Staten Island, NY, is the picturesque traditional American college. Dr. Ange Concepcion began at Wagner College in January 2016 and Mr. Thomas Tressler-Gelok began that June. Charged by Dean and Chief Diversity Officer Curtis Wright, now Vice President of Student Affairs at Xavier University of Louisiana, Concepcion and Tressler-Gelok were asked to fully analyze the way in which student conduct was trained, administered, and adjudicated at the College. Thus beginning a multiyear approach to rethinking student conduct with limited staff and resources. 


Fall 2016 was our first fall training with our residential student staff and professional staff. The “tried and true approach” was to provide information on the policies, how to address and respond to potential infractions of the code of conduct, explain the student conduct process, and go over their responsibilities as mandated reporters. Though we also held diversity and social justice sessions as it relates to interpersonal communication and community building, reflected on how our multiple identities can provide power & privilege (or diminished status), we failed to demonstrate the connectedness of the principles as it relates to approaching students. Simply put: we omitted implicit bias training. 


Tressler-Gelok was new to the institution and began doing a full scale data assessment on previous incident reports, including student demographics. He presented Concepcion with an observation: certain students and affinity groups were being approached in a different way than other students. For the sake of confidentiality, we will use a television reference, not in jest, but to get our point across on why we needed to improve our consistency and equitability in our crisis response:
  • The data showed that anytime a student from the cast of Mindy Project was approached with a minor noise or alcohol infraction, 2 RAs, a professional staff, and Public Safety were called and then formally documented. Meanwhile, when students from the cast of “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation” were approached, more verbal warnings or 1-1 documentations, without needing Public Safety, were completed. Leading us to the question: Why are all the students from “Mindy Project” being documented in an approach that is different from students from “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation”? 
  • In regards to their role as mandated reporters, there were examples where staff had shown more compassion to the female cast from Office if any of them experienced intimate partner violence or sexual harassment, though were found to be more procedural with the male cast. 


Now you may be thinking that this pattern of data collection and assessment was coincidence and happenstance. However, weeks into the term 2 parallel noise & alcohol incidents occurred and the pattern of responses indicated from the data presented itself. This is where the work began. 

 

In the 2016-17 academic year, the staff took the following steps: 

  • Concepcion created a space for a non-accusatory dialogue to begin. She set the stage for how the department would work together to take this assessment and real world applications and transform the conduct process by getting everyone on board. Tressler-Gelok asked the question to the staff and then stakeholders: 

    • “Why do we immediately assume the worst everytime we experience a student from the ‘Mindy Project'?” 

    • “Why are we more careful with the female cast from “The Office” when responding to potential Title IX based misconduct?”

  • Tressler-Gelok began looking at historical conduct data to identify staffing patterns, gender identifications, student affinity group membership, etc. 

  • Introduced staff development activities to professional staff meetings aimed at addressing implicit bias, addressing behaviors and microaggressions in the moment (e.g. upstander training), and building a rolodex for shared dialogue. 

 

In the 2017-2018 academic year, the staff took the following steps:

  • In the Fall term, student staff (e.g. first responders; mandated reporters) participants in student staff training focused on bias and microaggressions. 

    • Examples include attending a mock conduct hearing, participating in an invisible knapsack activity, and engaging in roundtables on experiences of different student groups at the college. 

  • Concepcion and Tressler-Gelok expanded beyond their internal stakeholders and began working in partnership with Public Safety on how situations were responded to and training. 

    • In January 2018 both teams came together to do a full review of their response training and how it impacted the conduct system. 

  • Based on the review, Residential Education committed to supporting the hiring of more candidates of color to support the student experience and leadership. 

 

2018 and Beyond 

 

The past 2 academic years were where much of the change had to happen. The first two years was about policy and implementation; while the next two years focused on the behavioral changes. Items that we worked on and continue to work on: 

  • Revisiting the student conduct system, initial conference structure, and how it correlates and interconnects with Title IX (and recent changes).

  • Partner with Vice President, Dr. Ruta Shah-Gordon, and Vice President, Jazzmine Clarke-Glover, on the interconnectedness of this work as it relates to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the collegiate level. 

  • Expand microaggression and implicit bias training to advance level for returning student staff to continue to build the skill set and work towards consistent and equitable approaches

  • Weekly quarterback meetings to discuss issues and be actionable in follow-up. 

  • Continued honest, open, and free-flowing communication about the student experience in the conduct process.

  • Train and work with conduct board members on unconscious assumptions/biases when reviewing case details, formulating questions, and sanctioning 

  • And most importantly- constantly reminding ourselves we are not experts in this evolving field. Learning each day is critical. 

 

Conclusion

We would love to say that we have solved the problems related to implicit bias in our organization. However, we know this can never be done. It is about learning and relearning. Wagner College is situated just miles from the location where Eric Garner was murdered, and now with the recent events that have launched us into this social pandemic, the work begins again in new ways and new challenges. 


The one thing we did that we would reaffirm to any party looking to begin this work is that we believed in what we did and taught it to others. This work is sustainable if, and only if, stakeholders, partners, faculty, staff, and students are at the table working together to dissemble the product and assemble with an emphasis on training and development on the whole.  Yes, this work begins with you, the reader, thinking and reflecting alone. But find your partners, your collaborators, your fellow change agents who will begin to dissemble your institutionally-specific barriers and find the root causes of patriarchy, gender stereotypes, and white supremacy that exist beneath the surface of higher education. We can begin the dialogue, if we can begin the reflection. 

 

Recommended Readings & Observations 

Ali, R. (2011). Dear Colleague Letter. U.S. Department of Education.

Alvesson, M. (2011). Organizational culture: Meaning, discourse, and identity. In N. Ashkanasy, 

C. Wilderom, & M. Peterson (Eds.), The handbook of organizational culture and climate (Second Edition, pp. 11-25). SAGE Publications. 

Caldwell, S. (2017). OCR's bind: Administrative rulemaking and campus sexual assault

protections. Northwestern University Law Review, 112(3), 453-486.

Chmielewski, A. (2013). Defending the preponderance of evidence standard in college 

adjudications of sexual assault. Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal, 1392013(1), 143-174.

Driskill, G. W. C. (2019). Organizational culture in action: A cultural analysis workbook (3rd 

ed.). Sage. 

Ellman-Golan, E. (2017). Saving title ix: Designing more equitable and efficient investigation

procedures. Michigan Law Review, 116(1), 155-186.

Mangan, K. (2015, February 2). Should colleges be forced to swiftly report rapes to the police?

            The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Should-Colleges 

-Be- Forced-to/151581

Mangan, K. (2017, September 22). What you need to know about the new guidance on Title IX.

            The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/What-     

You-Need-to-Know-About/241277?cid=cp143

Morris, C. (2017, September 7). DeVos to overhaul title ix guidance on campus sexual assaults.

Diverse issues in higher education. http://diverseeducation.com/article/101301/

Griffin, O.R., & Lake, P.F. (2018). Investigating College Student Misconduct. Baltimore: Johns 

Hopkins University Press., doi:10.1353/book.61974.

Lake, P. F. (2017). The four corners of Title IX regulatory compliance: A primer for American 

colleges and universities. Bradenton, FL: Hierophant Enterprises, Inc.

Sackmann, S. (2011). Culture and performance. In N. Ashkanasy, C. Wilderom, & M. Peterson 

(Eds.), The handbook of organizational culture and climate (Second Edition, pp. 188-224). SAGE Publications. 

Schein, E. H., & Schein, P. (2017). Organizational culture and leadership (5th ed.). Routledge. 

Silbaugh, K. (2015). Reactive to proactive: Title IX's unrealized capacity to prevent campus 

sexual assault. Boston University Law Review, 9(1049) , 1049-1076.

Smith, K. (2016). Title IX and sexual violence on college campuses: The need for uniform

on-campus reporting, investigation, and disciplinary procedures. St. Louis University

Public Law Review, 35(1), 157-178.

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