By Tatum Wheeler • March 31, 2018•Writers in Residence, Careers, Issues, Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination, Women and Law in the Media
I’m pleased to introduce Allison Lyng O’Connell, J.D., Title IX Coordinator and Clery Act Compliance Officer. After graduating from Northeastern University School of Law, Allison became an Assistant District Attorney in Suffolk County, Massachusetts. From there, she transitioned into Dartmouth College’s Title IX Program Coordinator, ultimately stepping into the lead Title IX Coordinator and Clery Act Compliance Officer role in August 2017.
For those unfamiliar, Title IX is a United States Education Amendment signed in 1972 that states:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Hello Allison, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Let’s jump in! Moving from a role as an Assistant District Attorney (DA) in Massachusetts to the Title IX Coordinator at Dartmouth seems like quite a leap. What prompted you to make this transition? Also, how has your work as an Assistant DA informed your work in Title IX?
Allison: At the DA’s office, I felt that I had a set path. I was working in my dream job; helping people navigate the legal system during difficult personal times. I gained experience standing up for victims and finding my words in the courtroom, as well as serving on a greater team that had similar goals. I also saw examples of certain career paths as my colleagues transitioned to the Attorney General’s Office and other government agencies.
When my partner was accepted to Dartmouth for medical school, however, I knew I needed to think more creatively about my future career. I began to look for roles that fit what I was truly after: helping people navigate a system during a difficult time in their life.
In looking at different job postings across many areas that could meet this goal, I found myself excited by the possibility of helping others as a Title IX Coordinator. Though I am working with a different system, this greater goal has really informed my approach. One of the biggest takeaways from my work with the DA’s office is the importance of developing mutual and respectful relationships with everyone, from interactions with the court clerk to speaking with the judge. In my role now, I work in collaboration with campus partners, fostering those mutual and respectful relationships that I experienced as an Assistant DA.
Thanks for sharing that insight into your background. Recognizing that no two days are alike, what are some of your typical responsibilities?
Allison: There are a few key components to my position: meeting with reporting and responding students, overseeing investigations, and sharing information.
A huge component of my job is meeting with reporting students (those that are reporting a Title IX violation) and responding (those that have allegedly violated Title IX). Within this responsibility, I have sought to foster a culture of responsiveness. To that end, I ensure that we welcome walk-ins.
Though my office doesn’t conduct investigations as they are handled independently, we are responsible for overseeing the investigation process, which often involves reviewing transcripts and connecting with investigators.
I am also responsible for sharing information with the Dartmouth College community on Title IX, Clery, and other useful information such as empathetic responses. At the beginning of the academic year, this meant presenting to Dartmouth’s incoming class of over 900 students. I had never presented to such a large audience before, and though it was frightening at first, I try to see tackling new professional and personal challenges as invigorating. I also present to individual departments on campus made up of faculty or other higher-education professionals.
In the media, Title IX is often portrayed as a reactive measure. It seems to only get attention when it’s not being followed. What steps have you taken to create a more proactive Title IX office and build an inclusive campus community in the wake of recent lawsuits?
Allison: It’s a small change, but my perspective is that when you’re trying to create change and awareness, compliance is not the most inviting word. People hear “compliance” and they think that the university just wants to protect itself from lawsuits. We've sought to create a “people’s Title IX office” as opposed to a “compliance Title IX office.” To do so, we’ve worked on changing the tone of our conversations. In the information we share, for example, we spend a lot of time talking about all the things that the Title IX office can and will do as well as the choices that people have.
Speaking of those choices, I’ve been very intentional about being clear about my role and the purpose of the Title IX office. Rather than present independently, I often present with some of my colleagues including on-campus advocates, counselors, and others. This allows people to see our different strengths, and make an informed choice in terms of privacy and confidentiality.
As I mentioned earlier, we’ve also worked hard to have an open-door policy. Though it’s just my colleague, Mary Lamar W. Nicholas, and I at the Title IX office, we make it a point to meet with everyone as promptly as possible.
Though not a part of my official role, I also have sought to connect with the greater campus community. To that end, I have joined several student communities and took on a role of being an advisor to a student group. Doing so provides me an opportunity to engage with and hear from students in a different way.
The “Me Too” era has put brought many cases of discrimination and harassment to the forefront of our attention. In what ways do you see this movement influencing Title IX work, both now and in the future?
Allison: Based on my role and what I’ve seen, the biggest result of “Me Too” has been greater access to information. More people, measured both formally through our campus’ survey results and through my informal experiences, have heard and are sharing information about sexual harassment. As a result of this, there also seems to be a broadening of what individuals identify as harmful behavior.
I’ve also seen a huge increase in people wanting to learn about Title IX. Many different departments and other campus groups are reaching out to learn about my office. I welcome this outreach and hope that through this effort we can build a more cooperative student community.
The Justice Department’s Title IX requirements do not specify a law degree for program coordinators. What advantages does your legal experience provide for this position?
Allison: The Title IX role has blossomed in the last five years. In just that short time, it’s moved from a singular component of an individual’s job duties to a stand-alone position. While a law degree may not be required, and as Title IX coordinators my colleague and I do not provide legal advice, there are many ways in which it can be useful. For instance, interpreting federal guidance is a skill that a law degree and law practice certainly helped hone. Though institutional investigations are not legal processes and not court processes like those processes, fairness and equity are paramount to the institutional investigation.
This is not to say that a law degree is the only background that would be useful for this position. There are so many others that would be helpful for this role. A Masters of Social Work, for example, or knowledge in advocacy or counseling would also be advantageous.
Finally, what advice would you give to those interested in pursuing nontraditional legal roles?
Allison: The most useful piece of advice I can offer, to those pursuing nontraditional and traditional legal roles alike, is to identify what pieces of your current job you enjoy and prioritize those pieces in a future job. Think broadly and be open-minded about what need-to-haves will sustain you, rather than focusing on the more minute details. For instance, I knew that I wanted to use the education and skills that I developed in law school to help people navigate systems. I had been interested in pursuing public interest law since my admission to law school. I also knew that I wanted to have an impact on people’s individual rights and work in a capacity in which I could ensure their rights. This, of course, drew me to the District Attorney’s office and the variety of tasks that they performed that had a direct impact on people’s individual rights. The culmination of these pieces drew me to the position of Title IX Coordinator.
Given that advice, I think it’s also important to find roles that challenge you personally and professionally. I would never have thought that I’d have to present in front of 900 people, but now I can do so confidently. Regardless of your situation, visualize what your ideal job components look like, and follow them through.
Thank you so much for speaking with me, Allison. I am so appreciative of your Title IX work and greatly enjoyed learning about your experience!
If you’re interested in learning more about Title IX and your Title IX rights, please check out these resources:
- National Women’s Law Center: https://nwlc.org/
- Know Your IX: https://www.knowyourix.org/
- The CLERY Center: https://clerycenter.org/
- Center for SafeSport: https://safesport.org/
- NACUA: http://www.nacua.org/
Tatum Wheeler is a fellow law aspirant based in the San Francisco Bay Area. When she’s not working, she spends her free time exploring new trails with her dogs, reading narratives, and cheering on her favorite sports teams. Please feel free to contact her with any questions, comments, or further advice.