In the wake of a tense spring semester stemming from conflict concerning the college’s sexual misconduct policies, administrators hired Margolis Healy & Associates (MHA), a consulting company specializing in campus safety and regulatory compliance. Last semester, President Rebecca Chopp announced that the investigation team would consist of chiefs Gary Margolis and Steven Healy, as well as specialists Linda Langford and Anne Munch. Their goal: review all of the College’s sexual misconduct practices and procedures, in order to make recommendations for prevention and provide further support for survivors. MHA began communicating with students and faculty in the spring, and the firm intends to continue the assessment in the fall. This summer, they presented their interim report to the college, included in Chopp’s July 18 email to the student body. In that email, Chopp provided a separate email address for students who wished to contact the firm.
In response to these announcements, questions were raised about the decision to hire MHA without student input, as well as the firm’s pedigree where sexual assault is concerned.
Referring to the college’s seemingly swift decision to hire MHA, Kenneson Chen ’14 noted that when the college was looking for a team, they focused on addressing matters as quickly as possible. Chen is a member of the Task Force for Sexual Misconduct, established to develop opinions regarding current processes, as well as to understand the intricacies of the college community. The committee is composed of students, faculty, staff, and members of the Board of Managers.
“The college has often been criticized for tardy responses to campus occurrences,” he said, “so swiftness of action was probably paramount. In this light, it makes sense that no student groups were contacted.”
He further explained that at the inaugural Task Force meeting, members were briefed on the intricacies of hiring an external review team. According to him, other firms were considered, but Chopp provided sound reasoning for choosing MHA.
“I found her reasoning sound, and I especially agreed with her concern that the external review team be adaptable to Swarthmore’s way of doing things,” he said.
Notably, the email sent to the student body included little general information about MHA. Additionally, administrators did not provide information about MHA’s past cases. Certain students also stated that MHA has a bad reputation among survivors and others for behaving more like a public relations firm when a college is in hot water. Mia Ferguson ’15 argued that companies like MHA are focused on making a profit out of schools’ wrongdoings.
“There’s a space where a lot of institutions are messing up, so consultant companies step up where they believe they have some knowledge and make money out of it,” she said. “It’s kind of like people are making money off of survivors’ or victims’ stories instead of supporting those victims or survivors.”
But on the national stage, members of the Federal Government have indicated they view MHA’s work as positive and productive. Recently, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced that the U.S. Department of Justice had granted MHA $2.3 million to establish a new National Center for Campus Public Safety, in partnership with the University of Vermont. Leahy was quoted as saying: “Gary Margolis, Steven Healy and their team are superbly qualified to help our education institutions meet[…]emerging security needs.”
Healy’s tenure at Princeton, where he formerly served as director of public safety, appeared to be marked by similarly positive reviews. The Daily Princetonian, a Princeton University student publication, noted that in the short time that Healy worked there, the department moved from a reliance on the local police to provide policing services to a department that is much more independent from the local police.
Some Swarthmore students do view MHA’s work as a positive step for the college’s future. One generally agreed-upon notion among students is the need for revaluation, or perhaps an overhaul, of the college’s sexual misconduct policies. Allison Hrabar ’16 views MHA’s investigation as a complement to the federal inquiry that was lodged against the college.
“As one of the many students who contributed to the Title IX complaint that was filed last semester, I feel that the college lost the opportunity to be trusted to handle the situation on their own, and external reports are extremely necessary,” she said.
Similarly, Joseph Hagedorn ’15 thinks MHA’s involvement is crucial. He pointed to changing attitudes among students regarding the handling of sexual misconduct as the catalyst for sweeping reform. He argues that societal views have changed dramatically, with many students no longer accepting traditional policies as adequate.
“We’re in the period where old policies have come into line with new attitudes and expectations, and that process can get ugly,” he said. “However, the impetus of the federal investigation was definitely a necessary evil to bring about the kind of change that needs to happen, even if the whole thing is somewhat distasteful.”
Hagedorn, like so many, believes that the college’s system for responding to sexual assault is seriously flawed. He does not, however, see malice on the part of the administration.
“I think the plethora of colleges going through this process now demonstrates the real cause of this friction: Colleges have always responded this way to sexual assault, and students aren’t taking it any more.”
Other notable colleges who have recently had sexual misconduct complaints filed against them include: Yale University, the University of Southern California, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; the University of California, Berkeley; and Occidental College, among a number of others.
When asked if he would be willing to discuss other specific institutions MHA had worked with on similar matters, Healy declined to respond in full; he stated that he felt it would be “inappropriate” to do so. He suggested looking at the company website for information about other institutions. The website, however, does not list whether MHA’s work pertained to sexual misconduct for each school.
Notably, Margolis Healy works with colleges on a wide range of campus-issues besides sexual assault. Due to this and their track record, some students have expressed concern about Margolis Healy where misconduct is concerned. Ferguson said that some MHA employees have worked with survivors, but that the firm as a whole does not specialize in the field.
“Gary Margolis and Steven Healy were leaders in the field [of campus safety and sexual misconduct] at the University of Vermont (UVM) and Princeton respectively,” she said. “Both of those schools have extreme problems with sexual violations. It bothers me that they can claim they’re specialists but they couldn’t fix the problems at their own institutions. UVM has really low reporting numbers and is infamous for issues of roofline use. Internally, at Princeton, there are a lot of problems with party culture and silencing [assault victims and survivors], from what I know.”
But Healy was adamant that in order to curtail and eventually eliminate sexual misconduct, MHA would continue to listen to the voices of students on campus for advice and suggestions.
“Traditionally, many institutions have handled Clery Act compliance as if it’s an institutional or administrational job only,” he said. “There are many different elements of the community whose voices must be heard. There’s always an opportunity to refine [our suggestions] based on community input.”
He further discussed the importance of engaging with the campus community regarding the proposed changes, noting that all of MHA’s recommendations were essential in order for the college to be entirely compliant with Title IX and Clery.
Healy indicated that, for the most part, forthcoming changes will be in implementation rather than policy. Healy says that he has met with the task force several times and believes that “Swarthmore cherishes community input and dialogue,” and that students’ continued involvement will be hugely important.
So where do students stand? Though Hagedorn views the external review as a “traditional institutional response,” he’s pleased with the new policies that were announced midsummer.
“The changes won’t entirely solve the problem, but they will certainly make progress and show willingness on the part of the administration to make positive change.”
Hrabar is also optimistic, though cautious. She noted that student activists on campus had already proposed many of MHA’s suggestions before the firm was hired. She does, however, feel that MHA has the right intentions.
“My optimism comes with a healthy dose of skepticism,” she said. “It’s impossible to say whether their suggestions will be ‘enough’ until we can see how successfully they are implemented, but they seem to have the correct aim in mind. I do believe the college has improved, but it still has a long way to go.”
Ferguson, however, does not feel that the interim suggestions are even “50 percent helpful,” and suggested that the firm hasn’t tackled the root causes and issues of sexual misconduct at the college.” As an example, she noted that [MHA] has not discussed the issue of discrimination as it pertains to sexual misconduct.
“The solutions they’ve proposed don’t offer any language around discriminatory crime, hate crimes, or physical assault. It’s all focused on sexual violence. [Sexual misconduct] is an issue that encompasses so many intersections. If we don’t talk about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion, we haven’t actually talked about sexual misconduct.”
Ferguson believes that MHA are intensely legalistic, and don’t look at important external issues that she feels are essential to changing sexual misconduct laws for the better.
“I have a problem with Gary Margolis and Steven Healy because I think they are so legally driven that they haven’t looked at the problem holistically,” she said.
When asked what the final outcome of the assessment might look like, Healy explained that MHA’s partnership with the college will continue into the future, even after the assessment is completed.
“It is never a done deal,” he said. “We will continue to work with [the college] as much as they want us to. We work hard to make sure we understand the scope of every case,” said Healy. “I would say 99.9 percent of all institutions [we work with] are satisfied [by the results].”
For Ferguson, the final goal of the assessment and federal inquiry is for Swarthmore to provide an exemplary model to counteract and handle sexual assault for all schools. She hopes all institutions can succeed without the personnel and financial resources that Swarthmore already has.
“Our peer institutions also aren’t doing it right.” she said. “Swarthmore can be the first school to get this right, to question Title IX where it hurts students, and to really become the historical leader on these issues.”
The President’s office announced that on Sunday Sept. 29, Margolis Healy and Associates will return to campus to begin a multi-day visit.
“We will have public, open sessions for students as well as open sessions for faculty and staff,” said Chopp. “There will also be time for more private conversations.”
Chopp also cited the importance of unity and community input in confronting these issues, noting that campus safety is “a shared responsibility by all of us.”
“I appreciate all of the student input and all of the student work. I also appreciate the many staff and faculty who are also working and engaging with Margolis Healy, the Task Force, and all the other avenues of involvement,” she said. “I think we are all contributing, and we all have important contributions to make. Now that students and faculty have returned to campus, it will be even easier for them to be a part of these critical campus conversations.”