Title IX in a Time of Uncertainty

photo of Amanda Walsh

Amanda Walsh, RWU Class of 2011

Juris Doctor

In November 2019, when a national array of experts converged at Roger Williams University School of Law to discuss Title IX and the adjudication of sexual misconduct on campus, one of the most authoritative voices on hand was that of Amanda Walsh ’11, who – as Senior Attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center (VRLC) in Boston – provides training and technical assistance in the field to colleges and universities across the country.

Walsh made headlines a few years ago as the first Title IX Program Officer at Brown University, where she implemented the school’s sexual and gender-based harassment and violence policy and complaint procedures, built its flagship Title IX Office, and oversaw complaint investigations. We recently talked with Walsh about her work:

RWU Law:  How did you first get drawn to your career path? “Title IX coordinator” wasn’t yet a common position in higher ed at the time you graduated.

Amanda Walsh: My first exposure to Title IX happened when I worked on a K-12 case at a civil rights firm out in Oregon in 2009, the summer after my first year at RWU Law – and that’s what sort of got me hooked.

But you’re right, Title IX wasn’t really talked about anywhere at that time, and Title IX coordinators barely existed. It was usually just another hat that administrators wore in addition to their full-time positions.

RWU Law: As I understand it, your first position out of law school was as a staff attorney at the VRLC in Boston – the same organization you’ve now returned to as Senior Attorney?

AW: That’s right, though it wasn’t my original plan. For most of my time at RWU Law, I thought I’d probably end up working for a firm out in Oregon. Then I had a sort of “end-of-law-school change of heart” [while working on the Title IX case] and decided to take the Mass. Bar and pursue this career path instead. My first role was actually as an AmeriCorps attorney, a position I took in hopes of being placed at the VRLC – I felt it was the only way I could get into that organization.

RWU Law: It seems to have worked out.

AW: Yes, I got my placement at the VRLC, and stayed on there as a staff attorney from the end of the summer of 2011 through the beginning of 2015. My primary focus was on Ed. cases, both K-12 and campus.

RWU Law: Then you moved on to Brown University – which didn’t really have a Title IX program yet. You were basically tasked with building it, is that right?

AW:  Yes, Brown had never had a dedicated Title IX program officer or coordinator up to that point. (Again, it was sort of an additional role that another senior administrator took on, in addition to being the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.) But the university had put together a task force that came up with a series of recommendations to improve the university’s response to sexual assault, and one of the recommendations was to have a dedicated Title IX coordinator. I was the first person to fill that role. I was there for just about two years, from the early ’15 to early ’17.

RWU Law:  Why did Brown choose you?  What made you the right person for the job?

AW:  Brown was specifically looking for somebody with legal expertise, as opposed to any background that was victim-advocacy specific. The idea was to find a person who understood the needs of the students reporting, but balanced that with the need to implement a fair process for the students responding. It’s a delicate balance in cases involving campus sexual assault – really, in all cases involving two students in an adjudication on campus. But I think that the student activists at Brown really wanted to see a person in the role who understood the specific needs of the reporting parties.

RWU Law:  Were you happy to be back in Rhode Island?

AW: Yes! Transitioning into an administrative role was sort of a natural fit for me at the time. My husband [Kurt Rocha ’11, whom Walsh met at RWU Law] practices in Rhode Island, and our family lives in Providence. So I was happy to get rid of the commute!

RWU Law: But now you’re back at the VRLC, this time as Senior Attorney. Does that mean you're back to commuting again?

AW:  No, I’m happy to say. I transitioned back as a Senior Attorney, but in a remote position – this was at a time when I had a toddler and knew I was going to have another child. So it was definitely a family-dynamic thing.

RWU Law: But is your new job just as interesting as the others?

AW: Oh yes, it kind of combines the best of both worlds. I get to work with more than 150 colleges and universities, doing a lot of the policy work and helping to implement some of what I did at Brown – but also some of what I did at the VRLC as a staff attorney. There are just so many different institutions with such a wide range of identities and cultures – community colleges, tribal institutions, HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities]. It’s really interesting work. It has allowed me to interact with a diverse group of institutions.

RWU Law: What sort of interactions?

AW: I continue to supervise the Ed. attorneys’ cases, that’s a part of it. But I also provide technical assistance and consulting expertise in the education realm, for colleges and universities. In fact, the main reason I came back to the VRLC was because they had received a Department of Justice grant as part of their Campus Grant program, to help student-conduct administrators, deans of students, Title IX coordinators, etc., to improve their responses to dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, and to create sustainable initiatives that will extend beyond the grant period.

RWU Law: So you’re now in a position where you can work with a large number of institutions rather than just one. Was that part of the appeal?

AW:  Very much so. The VRLC was transitioning to taking the lead on that grant and they needed somebody to spearhead those efforts. That allowed me to, as you said, impact a great number of institutions as opposed to one single institution – as well as, again, offering me a lot of work-life flexibility that I simply didn’t have in my role as an administrator. Title IX coordinators do not have easy jobs –they’re incredibly time-consuming and the demands are just around the clock.

RWU Law: You were a panelist at the Title IX conference that RWU Law’s Law Review held here in November. What did you perceive as the value of the symposium?

AW:  It was wonderful. It offered a lot of very high-level, nuanced conversation. There were really important speakers who had incredible things to say – and there was a lot of value added by the people who attended the symposium as well, through the thoughts and the comments they shared. The keynote address [by Professor Nancy Chi Cantalupo] was extremely nuanced, for example. Nancy talked a lot about the layers of a victim's identity and why gender equity and racial equity must be considered together. She addressed the ways in which changes made by the Department of Education are impacting women of color specifically.

That’s the sort of nuanced conversation you don’t get in most forums. Typically, Title IX training sessions are very compliance-oriented. You know: “Here’s what the law is, and here’s how you meet it.” It feels a little bit like checking boxes. I think people are hungry for something more substantial right now, in a time of so many unknowns. We don’t know exactly what to expect from the Department of Education. People are just sort of waiting for whatever guidance eventually comes.

RWU Law:  Does that state of affairs handicap your work?

AW: Well, there’s definitely a lot of uncertainty about where things are headed, and how much flexibility individual institutions will have in implementing whatever regulations eventually do come out of the Department of Education.  The RWU Law forum allowed people to raise those questions and talk in detail about the challenges that the unknown has brought to light on campus.

RWU Law:  Could you share an example?

AW: Sure. Colleges and universities have, for example, traditionally responded to sexual assault incidents that occur between two students off-campus. That may be something that changes under the new regulations – will off-campus incidents no longer be considered under the purview of Title IX? We just don’t know yet. If it happens, that would be a huge shift for, say, community or predominantly commuter colleges. For institutions that are highly residential, on the other hand, there would be less impact. At the Roger Williams conference, there were administrators in the room representing both perspectives, which allowed for some very informative exchanges in an area that’s not usually talked about in traditional training sessions.

RWU Law:  You mentioned an “end-of-law-school change of heart” that made you decide to practice in this area.  Besides your time working on a Title IX case, were there any experiences at RWU Law that impacted your decision to practice in this area?

AW: Yes, Liz Tobin Tyler’s Medical-Legal Collaborative program was a transformative experience for me, because it explored the idea that the law is not necessarily an adequate remedy all of the time. But instead of just dismissing it as, “Okay, so this is not a legal issue,” Liz's course brought in a medical partner and said, “Lawyers and doctors can collaborate in order to find a more holistic and adequate response to the problem.”

RWU Law:  How did that impact your approach to Title IX cases?

AW:  It allowed me to see the value of an organization like the VRLC – which has a very similar mission of looking more holistically at a client, as opposed to just trying to fit them into whatever box happens to be within my legal expertise.

Sticking with the example we just discussed, let’s say you’re a student at a university, but you’re off-campus and you’re sexually assaulted in your apartment. Well, you may be concerned about crossing paths with the accused person again within the educational environment, and so you want a restraining order. Or you don’t feel safe in your apartment anymore, so you have legal issues related to terminating your lease. Traditionally, the law is so siloed that you’d need multiple lawyers to help you with these different legal issues. By contrast, the VRLC has a wide array of experts on staff – meaning you can address all of your legal issues while staying within our organization. You don’t have to repeat your story and narrative multiple times for multiple people, which is an exhausting use of anyone’s time resources.

RWU Law:  That makes a lot of sense.

AW:  I’d add that my RWU Law-related connections have been invaluable in this regard. I’ve never even practiced in Rhode Island, yet I’m lucky enough to know a lot of people in the community here. I still have the ability to get resources and support when I need it – because Rhode Island is small and someone I graduated with inevitably practices in the areas I need help with. Most of my VRLC colleagues rarely cross paths with anyone that they graduated with, so they can’t reach out in the same way I can.