Last month, Kareem Peat assumed the role of Title IX coordinator for the University. Kareem received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, a J.D. from New York University, and a master’s in education from Harvard University. He comes to Fordham from Cornell University, where he was the acting university Title IX coordinator.
He recently sat down with Fordham News to delve into some of the prickly questions that can arise amidst a national debate on college responsibilities as they relate to sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
The role of Title IX coordinator isn’t new, but it has evolved into a rather intense position in recent years. Would you say that’s a fair assumption?
I would say that, yes, there’s more attention through the media and in terms of the discussions people are having. We’ve seen wonderful things accomplished through the #MeToo movement, but it’s always been an important issue and an area that has profoundly impacted the lives of pretty much everyone. We all know someone who’s been affected by sexual harassment, sexual assault, or a related issue.
What are your guidelines?
We must be in compliance with federal, state, and local law and adhere to those requirements. But also, to the extent that we can, we want to reflect the mission of the University, its values, and move forward in a way that makes people feel that their voice is being heard.
How do you handle the accuser and the accused with equal empathy?
There’s a lot to unpack there. Our primary role is to be neutral or impartial so we don’t take sides. We listen to each individual’s experience. We know that this is a traumatic and/or difficult experience for everyone involved and so we go through the process and we collect information. To the extent that we can, we find out what occurred, in the greatest amount of detail possible, and make our determinations based on that.
In some of the more publicized cases, it can seem pretty clear cut as to who is at fault. Are there nuances we may be missing?
Media coverage is completely different from being around individuals who are really immersed in those cases and understand the nuances. News coverage just gives us a glimpse of someone “winning” or “losing,” but we are not in that position in this office. Our job is to highlight the information that’s available and make an informed decision based on regulations, laws, guidelines. One of our main responsibilities is to make sure an individual’s information remains confidential and that we treat this sensitive information in a way that’s respectful to them, as well as respectful to the process.
You mentioned mainstream media coverage. What about the court of public opinion and how that often plays out on social media?
It’s important for us to be grounded and understand what our role is. These are sensitive issues, so we won’t acknowledge to the media whether or not a case is before us. When people come to us, they are in crisis, or have experienced trauma, or are facing something that is possibly the most difficult issue they have faced in their lives. We will not put that out into the public for their discourse, entertainment, analysis. That’s just not our role.
How did you come to this work? Was it a calling?
I think everyone should care and not need a reason to, so whether or not I, or a person close to me, had a personal experience is irrelevant. But the work is a perfect combination of my experience as an attorney and my focus on employment law. It also meshes well with my experience gaining a master’s in education, so understanding the higher education setting, all the dynamics that exist, the various constituencies, et cetera. So it’s a perfect blend of that.
What attracted you to the academic environment?
I think people have an opportunity to grow and develop at any age, but the number of opportunities at a higher education institution, and especially of the quality at Fordham, they’re incredibly clear. It’s a great opportunity to be around people who are trying to realize their full academic potential. And it’s our role to assist anyone who comes in to our office with realizing that and achieving that.
Do you think it’s the University’s role to educate about appropriate behavior?
Very few people are acting nefariously. But in those cases when they do, they have to be addressed. But I like to approach this as an issue of awareness and education. Again, that’s why this setting is so wonderful, because we can improve awareness.
The campus setting can also present its own unique challenges. What about those who may find subject matter brought up in the classroom offensive?
This is an academic institution in which we are trying to discuss or learn about difficult subjects. We need to have discussions about those topics in this setting. It’s important to provide professors or students the freedom to engage in that speech. There are subjects that make it necessary to use certain words or certain pictures, even those that may seem incredibly inappropriate. Everything must be determined on a case by case basis. A lot of thorny issues come up from some of the most beautiful, wonderful areas of academic study.