Sarah Affel, a former prosecutor who has overseen Cornell’s internal investigative office for sexual assault claims since its creation in 2016, will leave the University after the spring semester. As Title IX coordinator, she heads a University office — itself under federal investigation — that probes sexual violence and harassment claims against students, staff and faculty, some of whom have challenged the results in court.
Affel, 34, has led Cornell’s Title IX Office through a thicket of lawsuits, external investigations and a substantial shift in policy under the Trump administration as Title IX investigations around the country have drawn increased scrutiny in recent years. She is expecting her second child in February and will be leaving the University in June to move to Boston.
“It will be hard to leave Cornell behind, but I am looking forward to time with family before taking any next steps in my professional career,” Affel said in a statement to The Sun.
Affel studied at Tufts University and later earned her law degree at Northeastern University in 2008. Before joining Cornell, she prosecuted criminal cases as an assistant district attorney for Middlesex County near Boston. Cornell hired Affel as an associate judicial administrator in September of 2014 and she became the University’s lead Title IX investigator in 2015.
“I knew when Sarah accepted the role that she and her husband would be returning to Boston in June 2018,” Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer wrote to some employees in October, according to a letter shared by the University after The Sun inquired about a job listing for Affel’s position.
“Cornell has benefitted from the wisdom, talent, dedication and professionalism of Sarah Affel,” Opperman said.
Affel became a Title IX investigator one month after a June 2015 report blasted Cornell’s disciplinary system as unfair, confusing and overburdened, and she served on a task force that overhauled Cornell’s sexual misconduct guidelines one year later. The task force transformed Policy 6.4 — which defines forbidden sexual abuse and behavior on campus and specifies procedures for Title IX case resolution — from the one harshly criticized in the 2015 report to one lauded by one campus watchdog as one of the fairest in the nation.
The task force established a three-member board for sexual violence and harassment investigations that reviews a Title IX investigator’s recommendation, determines guilt and imposes sanctions. Previously, an investigator had probed the case, decided responsibility and recommended punishment.
Student awareness of the services provided by the Title IX coordinator has skyrocketed during Affel’s tenure, more than quadrupling since 2015, according to University data. The statistical jump occurred during a period in which many colleges beefed up their Title IX offices and journalists and activists put campus investigations under a microscope.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened six investigations into the Title IX Office at Cornell, responding to claims that the office is not complying with Title IX. The OCR has dismissed three of those complaints and three remain active. The inquiries do not imply wrongdoing, and while the Education Department has requested data from Cornell, it has not publicly released any findings.
Affel said at a Student Assembly meeting in April of last year that her office has “fully cooperated” with the Education Department probes by providing statistics and other information.
“We’d love to be hearing constructive criticism from them if that’s what they have for us,” she said of the OCR investigators. “We really think that we’re doing a good job and we also really think that we’re working in a way that is responsive to what the community’s needs are.”
Several men accused of sexual misconduct while studying or teaching at Cornell have filed lawsuits against the University since March 2015 claiming that they were treated unfairly.
Four of the ten lawsuits specifically criticized Affel’s performance as an investigator or coordinator at Cornell. Five more claim mistreatment took place while Affel was lead Title IX investigator or office coordinator.
In one case, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that Cornell arbitrarily and capriciously ignored its own policies and ordered the University to investigate its own investigator for bias. (Cornell’s attorneys stated in court that the University hired an outside lawyer who cleared the investigator, Elizabeth McGrath, who has since left the University.)
Last month, in a separate case, the same judge, Eugene Faughnan, said Cornell substantially complied with its own policies in finding a student guilty of sexual assault. Some lawsuits have ended in private settlements, according to court documents. Two cases are in progress and one is in mediation.
Affel, who succeeded Lynette Chappell-Williams as Title IX coordinator, also led the Title IX Office as contradictory directions from the Obama and Trump administrations resulted in more scrutiny of university investigations of sexual violence around the country. But the scene on Cornell’s campus had already changed by the time President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, announced the new rules.
In September, DeVos supplanted Title IX instructions from 2011, permitting universities to use a higher burden of proof to find students guilty, allow mediation in cases of sexual assault and grant only one party the right to appeal. Under the Obama-era guidelines, universities had feared losing federal funding if they did any of these things.
Cornell has not substantially modified its policies in the wake of the Trump guidelines.
At a meeting held by Office for Civil Rights investigators last March on campus, students aired complaints, telling the investigators that the Title IX Office was slow, unresponsive and had a greater interest in deterring litigation than in helping victims pursue justice.
Among those who have worked closely with Affel, though, many recognize her skill and dedication.
Adebola Olofin J.D. ’17 formerly led a group of four law students known as judicial code counselors who defend Cornellians accused of policy violations. He told The Sun in August that he had seen Title IX investigators file inaccurate reports and fail to treat parties equally, which he said harmed his clients, although he declined to describe specific instances.
But he also said administrators of the campus disciplinary system, like Affel, have “students’ best interests at heart.”
“I don’t think that any of what goes on behind the scenes is out of malfeasance,” Olofin said.
Prof. Kevin Clermont, law, who advises the judicial code counselors and is a frequent critic of campus judicial proceedings, told The Sun last year that an investigation by Affel reached “the stratosphere of injustice” and contained a “litany of procedural abuses by the investigators.” But even while criticizing the report, Clermont maintained that Affel is “an incredibly talented, pleasant person.”
Courts have twice refused to vacate the finding contained in Affel’s report that Clermont criticized, Cornell spokesperson Lindsey Hadlock noted.
“As Title IX Coordinator, I have had the privilege of meeting many students, staff, and faculty from across the university’s campuses; have had wonderful support and partnerships from colleagues across the university; and have worked with an excellent Case Manager and excellent Lead Title IX Investigators,” Affel said in her statement, adding that “Ithaca is a beautiful place to live.”
The University has hired a private recruiting firm, Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, to search for Affel’s successor, according to an online job posting, and Clermont said the firm reached out to him for advice on Affel’s successor.
Clermont said he told the firm to hire a “good lawyer, but preferably one without prior Title IX experience.”
“Serving in this office has a polarizing effect, so it is better to choose someone who does not start with an ideological bent,” he added.
Opperman, the head of human resources, said in her note to employees that Affel will also have a hand in the choice of her successor.