President Randhawa Talks Sexual Misconduct, Accessibility And More

President Sabah Randhawa sat down for an interview on Thursday, May 31, 2018. Eythan Frost//AS Review

By Asia Fields

In a thirty-minute interview, the AS Review asked President Sabah Randhawa about student dissatisfaction with how Western handles sexual assault and harassment, response to hate speech and vandalism, support for students of color, accessibility and university transparency.

Paul Cocke, director of communications and marketing, was also present at the interview.

This interview is in chronological order, jump to topics here:

Vice President [Melynda] Huskey has said Western has not historically provided what she would expect at an institution of our size in terms of resources. Some students feel there’s not enough funding and resources for services such as the Counseling Center, CASAS, the Student Health Center and disAbility Resources. What can be done about this or what is being done about this?

Randhawa: I would like to acknowledge that we do need more resources for student support services. The university has, rightly so, even in difficult times, tried to protect the academic side, like making sure we fund the faculty. And so what typically gets disadvantaged is some of the support services, like what you’re talking about for the disAbility Resource Center, for counseling services.

There are two things that we are working on. For the long term, we are starting a long-term planning process and part of that process is trying to figure out—for an expanding student body—what type of additional academic investments are needed in the classroom, but also what support services are needed for students to be successful. We’ll start that process in fall hopefully, when the students and faculty are back. We’ll have a committee that consists of faculty and students and staff. And then Melynda [Huskey] is doing a pretty thorough assessment of her division [enrollment and student services] in terms of what they need, which is going to be part of this process.

However, the second part of my answer is that we are still running an institution and you can’t wait for a process to get completed. So we are making some progress. Next year’s budget, fiscal 2019 or 2018-19 (which we will complete in the next week or two and the board of trustees is going to approve at its June meeting) has money that we are allocating to enrollment and student services for support services, for DRS [disAbility Resources for Students], for counseling and health. And I don’t have the details, but if you are interested, it is on the web and we can get you a web address where the proposals rest. But again, we are looking at a pretty decent investment. I can’t give you the number right away, but I think in the order of about $400,000 that we can immediately allocate to beef up some of these services.

Also on the capital side, one of the key projects we are working on is to move DRS, the office of DRS and our Veteran Services office to the library. And that’s work that will be completed I think early next year. And I think it’s important because it provides more space serving a larger student population. It is also a more central location in terms of student accessibility.

While we didn’t get a separate budget allocation from the state for other services, we are setting aside quite a bit of money from what is called a minor works program both toward upgrading elevators, because that is a key issue in many of the older buildings. I mean, this campus is 125 years old, as are many of the campuses that were established in the late 19th century. There are some significant infrastructural needs to be upgraded. So we are using it for elevators, for walkways, for some of the other ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] issues, and then we have a couple of other things going on I will mention quickly. One thing is the residence halls have a 10 year renovation plan that the Board approved I think a session or two ago. There is some work that is starting, as you can see, in a couple of dorms and some of it is going to address the ADA issues that have occured in dorms over the years. And then when we get money, which we don’t that frequently, but when we get money for things like the Carver renovation, that helps a lot in addressing significant issues. I wasn’t here when the old Carver building was, but I was told that there were some major issues down there.

Cocke: Including ADA and accessibility.

You already kind of touched on this, but I was going to ask about funding for campus accessibility—things like the bricks, housing, elevators, which you mentioned. Looking at Western’s asks to the legislature and what it receives back, it seems like funding from the legislature is an issue. Is that something you would say is correct and how is Western trying to deal with that shortage?

Randhawa: What you’re saying is correct. We never get the total amount we ask for from the legislature and it’s not a criticism, because they have significant needs they need to balance, in terms of what is in front of them.

There are two things, now that I have been here for about 18 to 20 months, that I am working with on my team that I would like to be a permanent component of our maintenance and regular deferred maintenance. One, I would like a classroom renovation plan. That every year, whether we get anything from the legislature or not, we set aside some money to renovate a few number of classrooms… Some of our classroom furniture needs to be upgraded.

And the other thing I would like to set aside some money for every year is for some ADA improvements because as I said, this is a 125-year-old campus and we have some really old buildings and some of them were built—many of them were built—when we didn’t have these requirements in place.

And so what I’m expecting going forward is we need to carve some money out from other resources that we get to address these two issues in particular.

Cocke: And Asia has written about the locks for classrooms and the last I checked there was some funding for that in the budget as well.

Randhawa: And it is a significant part of our ask for 2019-21 that we are going to be submitting in the fall to the governor’s office in terms of safety issues and ADA.

Western has received some praise from students and faculty from how it handled the antisemitic book vandalism in the library, but some are wondering why Western didn’t respond as quickly, in their view, or communicate as much about the flier found on campus in October that said “execute Islamo-fascist terrorism and their lying, fascist supporters,” as well as some other flyers. I know you sent an email in December where it was referenced when you talked about the new committees, but do you have a response to those concerns?

Randhawa: Let me start out by saying that as far as the university is concerned, and as far as I’m concerned, no form of hate or discrimination or bigotry is tolerated. That’s one of our core values. In terms of how quickly and how we respond to it, part of it is—to be upfront—it’s a learning process for us. Part of it is that at times there is a lack of clarity and it takes time to establish exactly where information is coming from and how we respond to it. It just takes some time to “figure out” between different agencies that are looking at it, different offices on campus, police and others that are looking at it, it just takes a little bit of time to react to it.

And then one needs to be thoughtful in terms of how one responds. You know, we want to be really authentic with the campus in terms of what is going on, but at the same time, you also don’t want to create a culture of fear on campus and so that’s why it’s important to look at where certain things are coming from. And you know, it’s a learning process at times and feedback from the community and others helps for the next time around.

Cocke: And I think it’s important to note the way the university responded [to the antisemitic incidents], with the event in the library. Not only was there heavy participation from the campus, but from the community. There were 250 people, including Holocaust survivors sitting in the front row, which I think was a significant response.

The posters were found in October and reported in The Bellingham Herald and the AS Review and students said they brought it to the administration’s attention, but it wasn’t until December that it was referenced in an email sent to students. Can you say in this specific case why it took two months for that to happen?

Randhawa: I honestly don’t recall exactly the sequence, so I won’t be able to provide you with a well-informed answer without speculating.

Going back to you talking about the balance of communication and not creating a culture of fear, The Western Front reported on the emails sent out by Vice President Huskey about rumors that ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents were on campus. Some people have been critical, saying this created a culture of fear without explaining any details. Can you address that concern?

Randhawa: As I said, you know, it is such a fine balance. And again, we try to do the best we can in the moment. So that was one example of when we sort of immediately responded. And part of the reason we responded was because some of the input that was coming to us was that there was some concern students were really concerned about it, particularly undocumented students and DACA students. And so we felt we needed to do something immediately so they don’t totally get panicked in terms of what is going on. We did the best we could at that point in time. Looking in the rear view mirror, I’m sure there are other things we could have addressed. But again, decisions were made at that time given the information we had and we try to do the best we can.

Cocke: And there was a lot of chatter on social media. There was a lot of misinformation floating around.

Randhawa: You know, I remember we had a similar thing where there were some reports of some “law enforcement” automobiles on campus and they were not from ICE but nevertheless at that time, we didn’t respond, in fact, for several days, trying to confirm where they were from and whatnot. And some people rightly said, “You took too long to respond.” It’s such a fine balance and it’s almost a case-to-case basis in terms of assessment and [asking] is this going to create too much panic and what is the end result if we respond or don’t respond.

I want to ask what Western administrators are doing to address student dissatisfaction with how Western handles cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Randhawa: Really important question. Where should I start? So I think, again from a core value perspective, I want to say that equity, justice, respect and dignity are absolutely critical for the university. It’s one of the core values of Western. Our challenge for every member of the community is how we live up to that value going forward.

Our approach has been sort of two-fold. One is around education awareness training, the other one is that when there is an incident, that we process the allegations in a timely manner and in a process that respects the due rights of all parties, as mandated by federal requirements. Even though the current [federal] administration has rescinded some of the older things [guidelines on how universities handle sexual violence], we have continued and will continue to work on the older guidelines, which is really important in terms of investigating some of these cases.

So what are we doing right now? There are three things that we are doing right now.

The first thing is we are expanding the capacity in the [Equal Opportunity Office, which investigates sexual misconduct at Western] around Title IX. And we are hopeful by the end of the summer we will complete that. And so by expanding capacity, what we are doing is two things. One is we are creating sort of a group that is really focused on Title IX. And we are creating an associate director of Title IX and adding another investigator. So we are going to double the capacity from about 1.5 individuals today to about three individuals who will be focused on these issues. Part of it is that since these are complex cases that require a lot of time, we need more people to work through that.

The second thing that we are doing is that I have called for a review of how we have handled sexual assault cases in the past with an eye toward greater accountability going forward and what we can do to improve. And I’m having our Office of Internal Audit do that work, which is an independent entity. I expect that work to be completed in the next four to six weeks. And I think between that and also between increasing the capacity of the EOO, I am hoping we can think through where we need to improve and what we need to do. And so part of that assessment is getting together with our ESS [enrollment and student services] folks, with our leaders in the EOO office and trying to figure out some of our overall approach and philosophy. And this is really addressing this greater accountability issue in terms of going forward and if things are proven, then what types of penalties need to be in place and just revisiting that whole element of it.

The third thing we need to do is we need to, like I said, a part of our focus needs to be education. And so I’ve been talking with the vice provost of our EOO office as well as our academic leaders about the training we provide. So right now we provide HAVEN training when students enter the university. And so we are looking into how do we provide this multiple times during their tenure at the university. When someone comes in, it’s great to provide that training, but there’s so much information overload at that one point in time, so trying to reinforce it sophomore year or a few times is important. So we are looking at how we increase that. And the same on the faculty and the staff side. We require every faculty and new staff member to go through the training process but again, how we do it throughout their tenure at the university is important. We are looking at the education awareness part of it, but at the same time, we need to increase the capacity in terms of how we handle these cases.

I want to ask about university transparency in general. During this last AS election, most, if not all, of the candidates said they did not trust or found it difficult to work with administrators. I’m wondering if you see that that’s been a problem at Western and if so, what’s being done about it.

Randhawa: So transparency is sort of a continuum. And the first thing that I’ll say is that I’m really open to any suggestions that students might have or any of the members of the community might have in terms of how we increase transparency.

I suspect that the impression comes from a number of different elements… It might come from, for example, the question you asked me about sexual assault cases, you know, and how much we can say about them. And we are limited it terms, because of federal requirements, in terms of what we can say in some of the cases or any case that involves personnel. But on the other side, one of the things we have worked very hard on is in terms of the transparency processes. So, take this for example, we have tried to make it very open where all the money comes, where it goes, and there are students involved in the process. In fact, we are going to make it even more transparent next year. When we set tuition and fees, we seek input from the AS or other relevant groups. So, for example, when we talk about housing and dining rates, we involve the current presidents and RAs [resident advisors] and so on. Starting next year, what we are going to do is also have some forums to invite every student to come and talk to us about what they think about the proposal around tuition and fees. So we are trying to work on transparency around that particular issue. Many of the meetings that address these issues are open, whether they are Board of Trustees meetings, University Planning Resource committee, AS Board. Any group that I appoint, I make sure there is student representation, whether it is a cabinet or the Commission on Gender Equity or the Council for Inclusion, Equity and Social Justice. I’ve tried to have open forums and my door is always open, but as I said, any solutions students might have, I welcome to increase transparency.

You laid out for me three different ways the university is trying to address student concerns about sexual harassment and assault. I’ve talked to some students who feel like what is going on at the administrative level isn’t being communicated to students, so students feel nothing is going on.

Randhawa: Sure.

Are there plans to communicate this to students or address that?

Randhawa: In fact, I had a chance to meet with a group… Planned Parenthood Generation, as well as a couple of other groups, just recently on the same thing. They had brought some suggestions to me also in terms of how can for example, put more information on the web in terms of the values we hold, in terms of the process. And so, we are putting in work over the summer to make it happen. I promised to them that I can’t make any commitment during this term, we only have a month to go and it’s too busy, but over the summer, we’d try to move forward some of the recommendations I’ve committed to them. Again, I would say that when it comes to information about specific cases, our hands are tied on that. But in terms of what I shared with you in terms of the process, like the review I am doing, that’s a good point that we make sure we share what we are doing with the campus community and we do a better job.

You said that when it comes to specific cases your hands are tied. I talked to one person from Planned Parenthood Generation who said she doesn’t understand how we can have these conversations if we can’t talk about specific cases and talk about what went wrong in them. Are there things that the university maybe can say about some of these cases that they aren’t? Or even if you can’t specifically point to a specific case, could there be more that the university could do to address what happens in some of these cases with students?

Randhawa: I’m not sure, taking the individuals out of the situation, maybe as far as, I think that’s a fair observation and something perhaps we can try to do more intentionally is talking about the types of situations, for example, that create certain outcomes and how we address them. I think that’s a legitimate conversation. And in fact, we don’t even have to look at Western. There are enough examples out there, if you’re talking almost like a case study approach. If you look at how certain things have happened and if Western were in that situation, how would we respond? You know, I think that’s a healthy discussion to have for the university.

Cocke: It’s also an evolving situation not only at Western but in society with the #MeToo movement and a greater demand for more information. I think not only Western, but a lot of institutions and a lot of businesses, big businesses, are struggling with both how to educate and provide information that also meets other needs.

A reader and student submitted a question asking how Western is supporting students of color without tokenizing them.

Randhawa: Excellent question. We just completed the strategic plan and our most important priority, our highest priority, is advancing student success. And I truly believe that if we are going to get beyond tokenizing, we need to make sure that first of all, every student succeeds, has a high probability of success and eliminate achievement gaps. Our achievement gaps—and when I talk about achievement gaps, I mean graduation rate between majority students and other groups of students—if you look at the data, varies five to 15 percent depending on which year you pick. And I think, if at the end of the day, we can’t eliminate that, we have failed in our mission. So, I think to me, the most important way to demonstrate our commitment to students of color, of any underrepresented community, is to make sure they’re succeeding at the same rate that anyone else is succeeding. That’s the commitment I made to the Board of Trustees, to the university community. Certainly working on other dimensions is great, that the Multicultural Center is great, working on all other educational stuff is great, but at the end of the day, we need to deliver on performance.

Is there anything else that you want to mention?

Randhawa: I think you asked me some very meaty questions, some very important questions. You know, we talked about students with disabilities, hate speech, sexual assault, success for students of color, transparency. If I may, what I want to say is when I think about my role or leadership, part of it is advancing success in any of these areas, part of it is top down, what we can do as the president or as the administration. Part of it is grassroots, organically, how do we move forward?

So the framework that I use, and I think that is pretty consistent with the social justice framework, if you look at it, there are multiple levels of moving an organization. So at one level, there are things that administration can do easily. So for example, resources toward something. Or recruiting more students of color or faculty of color. So moving those metrics is something that we can more from an administrative perspective.

The second layer to me is around education and awareness and that is a shared commitment between administration and what happens at the organic level. We can do some things like Haven training, we can require everyone to do it, but the curriculum is faculty, so we need to get the faculty to also do that.

And then if you get to the deepest level, that has to do with values and behaviors. And that is totally organic. I do think that it is my role to make sure I continuously deliver on the importance of these things and to keep these issues in front of everyone and hopefully engage folks in dialogue that can move these things forward. But at the end of the day, we also need to be sure that organically, when students—and again, the university community is one that is transient. Four thousand students come in each year, four thousand leave each year. So we have a new group, and the same thing with a number of faculty and staff that are going through the system. So how do we keep these things in front of every new class of the community we have each year? So I certainly appreciate the work that you all do in terms of ensuring, particularly on the organic level, certainly holding us accountable, holding me accountable in terms of the administration, that is important. But also, how do we make sure that we send the message that organically, each one of us has some responsibility?

Updated 6/5 at 1:00 p.m. to fix photo credit.

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