Chantelle Cleary, who will be joining the University as the new Title IX coordinator in June, outlined her objectives and emphasized her desire to work with the Cornell community to address and prevent sexual and interpersonal violence in an interview with The Sun.
“I’m not coming to Cornell to kind of just push papers and make sure that we’re doing the bare minimum to comply,” she said. “I’m coming to Cornell because I want to work with a community of incredibly bright and talented people to actually start to make some changes.”
Cleary will be succeeding Sarah Affel, who has been the Title IX coordinator since 2015. Affel will be stepping down at the end of the semester, The Sun previously reported.
The Title IX coordinator is responsible for the “oversight of the University’s compliance with Title IX; its ongoing education and sexual assault and harassment prevention efforts; the investigation, response and resolution of all reports of sexual and related misconduct at the University; and Cornell’s efforts to eliminate prohibited conduct, prevent its recurrence and remedy its effects,” according to the University announcement.
In her opinion, Cleary said the role of the Title IX coordinator is to “engage the community” and bring people together “to do work collectively and collaboratively, to achieve whatever it is that is our ultimate goal.”
At one point, Cornell led the nation in Title IX investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights about the mishandling of sexual assault investigations by the University, The Sun previously reported.
Cleary said that these factors did not really influence her decision to come to Cornell and said she will learn more about the nuances of past situations at the University when she actually starts the job.
Cleary is currently the assistant vice president for equity and compliance and the Title IX coordinator at the University of Albany, where she has been since 2015. She is also a faculty member for the National Center for Campus Public Safety’s Trauma Informed Sexual Assault and Adjudication Institute. She received her bachelor’s degree from Binghamton University and a J.D. from Albany Law School.
Prior to joining the University of Albany as the Title IX coordinator, Cleary worked as an assistant district attorney for about 10 years after finishing law school, focusing on crimes that involved any form of sexual or interpersonal violence.
During the interview, Cleary said that while she loved being a prosecutor, she found that the work was mostly reactive and did not give her much opportunity to be proactive and work with the community on preventing the violence in the first place.
Cleary said that she was drawn to the position at the University of Albany because it was an “opportunity to utilize the skills that I’ve gained over the last decade of my career and to also be more engaged with my community on prevention and education efforts.”
When asked if her experience as a prosecutor might suggest that she will be partial toward reporting students over accused students, Cleary responded, “fairness has always been important to me.”
“I was one of those prosecutors who would bring my entire file down to the defense attorney and say, ‘look at it all, not hiding anything,’” Cleary continued, speaking with The Sun over the phone. “One of my biggest fears as a prosecutor was prosecuting someone successfully who did not engage in the conduct that they were accused of. I think it should be a fear in every prosecutor’s mind.”
In terms of her first steps when she gets to Cornell, Cleary said she wants to just listen to the needs of the Cornell community and expressed her wish to encourage people to reach out to her if they had any questions or concerns or just wanted to get to know her.
“I think it’s really important not only for me to get to know the folks that I’ll be working with but for them to get to know me as well,” she said.
After having conversations with various stakeholders in the community, she said that the next steps would then be to identify the common themes, synthesize them into goals and bring people together to develop a strategy for achieving the goals and “addressing sexual and interpersonal violence both before it happens and after it happens.”
When asked if she thought there was a rape culture at Cornell, Cleary said that was something she would need to learn more about once she actually gets to campus.
“I think there is rape culture in our society, generally. Whether or not or how deeply ingrained that culture is at Cornell, I’m not clear about [Cornell’s culture] yet because I’m not there yet, but that’s one of the things I might want to talk to folks about when I get there,” she said.
Cleary emphasized the importance of effective bystander intervention as part of addressing the issue through a “collective, community responsibility,” and described an initiative she led at the University of Albany for training and empowering students to be active bystanders in potentially dangerous situations.
“We want you to be safe. We want to be able to intervene if you’re faced with a situation that could become violent, but the fact of the matter is us administrators, us staff, we’re not out there with you all,” she said. “When you’re out at parties or at the bars or whatever it is you’re doing, we’re not there with you. If we were, it would be weird.”
Cleary expressed that as an investigator of complaints against students accused of violence, “the job of the investigator is to be fair and neutral, but that doesn’t mean robots, it also means kind and again, respectful.”
“It’s really important not only for me to be visible and transparent, I think to make folks comfortable in reporting, “ Cleary said. “I want folks who are accused of engaging in violence to also know that I’m going to continue to support the very robust and transparent and fair policies that Cornell has put into place so that if they are going through this process, it is one in which they will be heard and get a fair process.”
Cleary will inherit Cornell’s Title IX Office less than a year after the Trump Administration raised concerns about inadequate due process protections for college students accused of sexual misconduct. Rolling back rules promulgated by the Obama Administration, Trump’s Department of Education announced in September that it would allow colleges and universities to raise the amount of proof they need to determine an accused student’s guilt, to grant only the accused party the right to appeal a case outcome and to create more informal avenues for case resolution.
Asked which of the two President’s rules she prefers, Cleary said that while there is more in common between the two sets of rules than people realize and that they complement each other well, she “like[s] that the Trump Administration is giving folks the option” of choosing between the standard of proof required under Obama, preponderance of the evidence, and the more strict clear and convincing evidence. The latter is believed to be more friendly to people accused of sexual misconduct because it requires more evidence to determine their guilt.
“I like that there’s this option now. Which option is better I think depends on the individual needs of the specific university,” Cleary said. Asked to clarify what kinds of factors would support one standard over the other, Cleary said the Trump Administration was “spot on” when it suggested looking at how non-Title IX cases are adjudicated to ascertain what burden of proof would be appropriate for Title IX cases.
“What has the university used historically as a standard of proof when adjudicating violations of the student code of conduct?,” Cleary said, indicating her criteria for deciding which burden of proof to use. “How has that worked? What has been the response to that standard of proof by the university community?”
At Cornell, non-Title IX cases are adjudicated under the clear and convincing evidence standard.
Regarding an accused-only right to appeal and informal case resolution processes, Cleary said said she has an “open mind” about the former but said she was skeptical of the latter “especially in cases where violence is alleged,” though she is open to changing her mind once she gets to Cornell.
Cleary acknowledged in the interview that she will be stepping into a position that has come under criticism from various members of the Cornell community, including, most recently, the 23 Cornell Law School professors who filed a brief against the University, saying it arbitrarily abdicated its own policies before suspending a male student accused of sexual assault.
Cleary stressed two solutions to the current tumult: dialogue and transparency.
“It sounds like I’ll be stepping into a situation where at least some folks are not feeling happy, but it’s my job to bring us together, to find a common goal, common interest, common value to say, alright, let’s work together,” Cleary said. Regarding transparency, she added, “It’s hard on the one hand to tell folks to trust the office that you’re running and the process that you’re overseeing if you’re not going to be transparent and open and honest with them.”
In a broader sense, Cleary hopes that her efforts will help change the broader culture surrounding sexual and interpersonal violence, saying that she was drawn to Cornell because of the opportunity to work with students who will be leaders.
“When Cornell graduates leave Cornell and they move on to the workforce and they move on to other communities, they will be leaders in those communities,” she said. “My hope is that during their time at Cornell, I can work with them to develop different strategies for changing the culture in which violence is happening far too often.”
“Ultimately, and this might be a crazy dream, but ultimately my hope is that the overall culture in our nation will change and become a country of folks that value safety and respect for all,” she added.