Student sexual misconduct investigations are lengthy, in-depth and emotionally fraught processes. They require talented and sensitive professionals to tackle each instance in a manner that brings about an appropriate outcome.
Raquel McDowell, Assistant Dean and Title IX investigator in the Dean of Students Office at the University of Miami, leads her institution’s approach to sexual misconduct investigations against accused students, and is also at the helm of educating Miami’s campus on what constitutes tolerant and respectful behavior.
GoodCourse co-founder Chris Mansfield sat down with Raquel to discuss her journey into the Higher Education space, her work as a Title IX investigator, and the projects she runs in conjunction with student-led organization, It’s On Us.
I’m an Assistant Dean and Title IX investigator in the Dean of Students Office at the University of Miami. My role is to follow up, investigate and support those who submit a complaint about sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking or dating/domestic violence.
My background is in employment law – I’m a licensed attorney. Prior to my work at the University of Miami, I was at Florida International University, doing Title IX investigations involving employers, as opposed to students.
I went to law school at a predominantly Black university in North Carolina. During my second year, I was a graduate assistant working under the then Dean of Students, Dr. Gary Brown. I saw how the decisions students make can have drastic consequences for them – not only in regards to sexual misconduct but also issues like alcohol and drug consumption. I saw students that were expelled because of conduct issues. It was a rewarding and interesting experience.
I wanted a change from my career as an employment law attorney and decided to go back to HE – I applied to a Title IX role, and loved it.
Title IX investigations are arguably the most difficult aspect of student conduct to navigate for a multitude of reasons. We don’t usually have witnesses and evidence in a traditional sense – most offenses aren’t committed in front of others. More times than not, it’s one person’s word against another.
These situations are also obviously highly emotional, which can affect the manner in which I provide support, and explain information about the process to them. There’s a lot of nuance to Title IX investigations, they’re not as black and white as other policy violations. You can’t look at one case and extrapolate it out – every case is so specific.
As Title IX Investigators, we have to be neutral to both parties. Sometimes, the reporting person or the accused person can misinterpret our role as one that advocates for them. While we should and do empathize, we can’t advocate for one party over another. In this role I’m a fact-finder, so I have to be fair to both parties.
I try to make myself available as much as possible – evenings, weekends, and during the holidays, to provide support for all involved. Sometimes, this requires speaking with parents, if the student requests it.
We have a UM chapter of It’s On Us (IOU) of which I am the proud advisor. IOU are a national organization working to raise awareness of sexual assault on college campuses. It’s student-led, which is great because programming and events are tailored to topics and activities that they know will engage their peers. It also creates a sense of accountability.
Some organizations, such as sororities and fraternities, student-athletes, and student workers are mandated to have Title IX training every year. Sometimes other organizations will reach out to IOU to train their members or run workshops for them.
Title IX training is also mandatory for all incoming freshmen. Beyond this, we always provide in-person and on-website resources, for example on the different ways you can report an incident. If someone wants support but does not want to report, we also have anonymous helplines.
I can’t say this enough — you have to be able to adapt to change! Higher Education doesn’t look the same as 5 years ago, and it will look different 5 years’ time. BLM, #MeToo, a stressed importance on mental health, explosion of social media apps like TikTok, and new Title IX regulations all have drastically shifted the landscape in the past few years alone. This has altered campus culture and student life — HE practitioners must be able to embrace and navigate change.
My dear friend and colleague, David H Kenton. He is the Dean of Student Services at Broward College and CEO of Kenton Education. As a Black man, he understands firsthand the challenges Black colleagues and students face in Higher Education institutions. Often, we’re the only PoC in the room. One of Dr. Kenton’s priorities is to always create spaces where Black students and professionals feel safe and understood.
An oldie but goodie – Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Johnson. It’s about two mice and two people who go on a search for cheese every day, but one day find it has been moved. It’s about them attempting to find the cheese – but at its core, it’s about being able to recognize and adapt to change.
My mother is a retired High School principal. She always spoke about this book. It spoke to me because I’m the type of person who prides myself on adaptability.