By Esther Goldschlager • April 30, 2015•Ms. JD
Recently I had the opportunity to connect with Cara Tuttle Bell of Vanderbilt University. I enjoyed learning about Cara’s career path and her work in higher education advocating for social justice.
Can you please provide a brief summary of your background?
I am the Director of the Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response at Vanderbilt University. I previously served as the Associate Director for Student Accountability, Community Standards, and Academic Integrity at Vanderbilt University and as the Director of Programs for the Women’s Center at Northwestern University. I hold a JD from Vanderbilt University Law School, Master of Arts in Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of Louisville, and a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from Ball State University.
While in law school, did you know that you wanted to work in your current field?
No, I did not have a clear picture of my career path while in law school. I had been so focused on getting there, that I then had to take some time to narrow down a passion and set new goals. I found myself drawn to courses focusing on civil rights and liberties and anti-discrimination work. I took constitutional law, employment discrimination, domestic violence law, race and representation in the political process, and labor law, in addition to all the other usual, typically required courses. I realized while in law school that I wanted to work in higher education and advocate for social justice, although at that time, I was not solely focused on sexual assault prevention. It’s been an evolution.
Is there a particular case or instance that you have encountered throughout your career that stands out in your mind?
The high profile cases tend to last a long time and receive quite a bit of attention, both in the press and the local community, if not also nationally, but what stands out to me is the steady stream of the quiet cases – the women coming forward to connect with advocates to seek out resources and support, who may or may not participate in a formal complaint process, in this setting that means either the University process or criminal process. When the public is only aware of the cases involving athletes or celebrities, they can more easily doubt the prevalence of the problem and are bombarded with victim-blaming messages that call the credibility of the victim into question. They are not getting a complete picture of the nature of sexual assault on college campuses, so there is a disconnect for many people in understanding why colleges and universities must investigate and respond to these cases. It’s a matter of equity, ensuring a safe and accessible educational experience for all students. Women are much, much more likely to experience sexual assault – of course, they are not the only students who do – but we’re really tackling a problem that results in differential access to education that amounts to gender-based discrimination. Not everyone makes that connection.
You are the Director of the Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response at Vanderbilt University. Could you please tell the readers what your job generally entails?
This role requires me to help guide the Vanderbilt campus in providing victim assistance and reducing power-based personal violence by creating and implementing programs and policies, including Green Dot bystander intervention training and educational programming around effective consent, ensuring compliance with various state and federal laws governing the handling of such cases and the reporting of crime statistics, conducting Title IX, Clery Act, and Sexual Misconduct Policy compliance trainings for faculty and staff and key student leaders, developing victim services, and advocating for improvements in the University handling of sexual assault cases in ways that are victim-centered and trauma-informed.
Have you encountered any hurdles on your career path?
Yes, of course. Everyone will. It is important for young lawyers to know that. Not every job will feel meaningful or like you’ve found your fit. Not every supervisor will be able to be an effective mentor. But it is important to work hard and do your best, and each opportunity will lead to the next. When I graduated from law school, there was no way to anticipate the way the country has changed in its understanding and prioritization of sexual assault that would lead colleges and universities to create a position like the one I now hold. But if you look at my resume, it looks like I knew exactly what I was doing and that I was almost singularly and deliberately working toward this job at this time – but that is certainly not how my career actually played out, nor how it felt as I transitioned from one higher education position to another. Yet each prior job has been crucial in contributing to my skills and qualifications for this role. Also, I work on feminist issues, and there is quite a bit of misinformation and resistance that must sometimes be addressed and overcome to accomplish goals. I’ve certainly learned the values of restraint, compromise, and patience in recent years, but all of this is built upon the foundation for advocacy that legal training provides. I know how to structure an argument, be persuasive, and hold my ground, and I can thank the law school experience for that.
Is there anything on your path that you wish you had done differently?
I’m really feeling heard, effective, and satisfied with my career right now, so I want to respond to this question by reassuring younger women lawyers that you will get there and that there are workable and valid options outside of the big firm path. I felt very stressed about not following my peers in that direction after law school, but I am now so glad, for me, that I didn’t conform when I felt called in a different direction. You absolutely can find meaningful work that can pay off the law school loans, create change and make a difference. Lawyers are so well equipped to do this type of work. I hope more people realize that higher education is potential career path.
Did you have a mentor at any time during your career?
I was fortunate enough to have a favorite political science professor at Ball State University encourage me to aim high in my choice of law schools. I have not had one long-term mentor but instead have connected with women 1-2 steps ahead of me in higher education administration and met for coffee or drinks and discussed with them the challenges and strategies for navigating my responsibilities at that time. That type of relationship-building is always useful. You won’t necessarily know what connections they have, or knowledge of future opportunities, but it is so helpful to create and sustain those professional relationships. I have used mentors or sponsors more for advice navigating a particular situation rather than guiding my career. I do firmly believe that fostering these supportive relationships with other women within your profession are crucial. I would also advise young women to not overlook women who may not come in the fun package of a best friend – it’s not even necessary that you like them for them to be incredibly worthwhile connections who can offer indispensable career advice. Be open to having different types of mentors or sponsors over time.
Do you have any final advice for newly minted female lawyers/JDs who aspire to work in student affairs/higher education?
We need you! And there are many opportunities, in Risk Management, General Counsel, Student Affairs, HR, Equal Opportunity, Title IX offices, Student Conduct, protection of minors initiatives, and so on. Colleges and universities nationwide are creating more positions connected to this work, looking for people who understand compliance and the legislative landscape. Higher education was not a career path promoted by law school career services offices and online resources when I was in law school, over ten years ago. I hope that has changed. I want women to know that higher education is a fun, engaging, and meaningful field. However, there seems to be a misperception that a career in higher education ensures work/life balance. A career in higher education is not necessarily lower stakes, less stressful, or fewer hours. Most staff work year round and do not get time off work when students leave campus. Women in higher education similarly struggle to navigate competing work and life demands. Some institutions will be able to offer flexibility and incredible benefits, such as on-site childcare, but these policies and accommodations are by no means universal.
Cara Tuttle Bell: Cara holds a Master of Arts in Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of Louisville and a JD from Vanderbilt University Law School. Currently, Cara serves as the Director of the Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response at Vanderbilt University. In this role, she guides the Vanderbilt campus in providing victim assistance and reducing power-based personal violence by creating and implementing programs and policies, including Green Dot bystander intervention training and effective consent programming, conducting Title IX, Clery Act, and Sexual Misconduct Policy trainings, developing victim services, and engaging in additional endeavors ensuring equitable treatment of Vanderbilt students. Cara previously served as the Director of Programs of the Women’s Center at Northwestern University and as an adjunct lecturer of women’s and gender studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate, where she taught a variety of courses including women and the law, history of the U.S. Women’s Movement, feminist research methods, and contemporary female sexuality. She actively supports students and women’s organizations in her community to address issues ranging from pay equity to sexual violence. Cara previously served as a Writer in Residence for Ms. JD and was recently was recognized by Ms. JD during their Ms. JD Honors in March 2015 as the recipient of the Road Less Traveled Award. Cara is the 2015 recipient of the Vanderbilt University Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center’s Mary Jane Werthen Award, presented to a member of the Vanderbilt community who has contributed to the advancement of women at Vanderbilt on a systemic level, also awarded in March 2015.