Investigative reporter, Nikki Shaner-Bradford, interviews Columbia’s newest Title IX Coordinator Marjory Fisher on the various aspects of her exciting and important position.
Title IX has a persistent presence on campus. From SVR training to conversations both in and outside of the classroom on campus sexual assault, harassment, and the gender politics of the intellectually vibrant community that comprises our student body, reference to the 1972 amendment is common. However, when a new Title IX coordinator was appointed at the beginning of the semester, the university was surprisingly quiet. Therefore, on behalf of Bwog, I set out to learn more about our new Prosecuter-turned-Title IX Administrator, Marjory Fisher.
Marjory Fisher is not your typical administrator. This fact is evident not only in a brief glance at her bio on the Sexual Respect Initiative page — which boasts, among other accolades, a laundry list of detective and legal work that seems stolen straight from the resume of SVU’s own Olivia Benson — but also upon first meeting her.
As I enter Fisher’s office underneath Philosophy Hall, all the biographical tidbits and legal jargon I’ve been compiling over the past week align. Fisher greets me immediately upon arrival, and we sit down at her table to begin our interview. While I organize my questions, she asks about my classes and listens intently to my answers. Fisher is calm, collected, and interested – the perfect detective.
When asked about how she’s liking Columbia thus far, her answer is immediate and definitive: “I love it.”
Nikki Shaner-Bradford:: How would you explain your role at Columbia University? Why is the role of the Title IX coordinator important on both the university and the student side?
Marjory Fisher: My role is really to do the best than I can to ensure a harassment-free environment. I’m very involved with consulting with the Gender-Based Misconduct Office on their cases and their reports […] I think my job is important in ensuring that fair investigations are done and that they’re done as expeditiously as we can do them, and coming to a just result. Also, doing as much work in prevention as we possibly can.
NSB: In terms of prevention, what kind of training do you provide for University students and staff, and what do you think the significance of this training is?
MF: I’ll just give you a little bit of background. Over the last couple years, I did a lot of prevention training — consent training — in high schools and all different places in the country. […] I felt like it was such an important thing to do to sort of shed a little bit of light for students who were unaware of what they were going to encounter in college — about what the policies look like, what the rules are about, and what affirmative consent is. So it was sort of a natural fit to do some of that training with students who are here. There’s a new law in New York state called Enough is Enough […] to require certain trainings on campuses, they added a student bill of rights […]. It’s like an addendum to Title IX. One of the things this law requires is that athletes must be trained before they compete, and student leaders must be certified before they can lead their club. And those requirements kicked in this fall, so I’ve been training all the athletic teams.
NSB: That must be quite an undertaking.
MF: I have to tell you, I have absolutely loved it.
There are other schools in New York that have done it by putting every athlete in a stadium and they have one person speak to them, and I really feel that the interaction that you get when you do it that way is so limited. So for me it’s been really terrific to have groups of maybe fifteen or twenty to talk to about this within the context of their team because they seem to be much more relaxed, and they’re asking questions. We’ve had some really spirited conversations about what the policies are. I think that because of my experience, [Fisher was a sex crimes prosecutor for thirty years] they’re interested to hear how the handling of cases on campus differ on campus and in the courtroom. […] And so I’ve really loved that introduction to the students here.
The content of [the training] is: What is Title IX? Because people kind of have a vague understanding of it as something that was passed a long time ago as something that had to do with gender equity in sports, but it’s so much more than that now. And then we talk about what the rules are now. Especially in New York, because there’s now a specific definition of affirmative consent that has to be in every college campus in the state. I talk to them about alcohol and consent, and how those two things interact and what it looks like in a case, because I’ve investigated many, and what kinds of signs one should be looking for when they suspect their partner might be incapacitated. And the difference between intoxication and incapacitation and how that plays out. At the end I always talk a little about dating violence […]. The numbers of people in intimate relationships on campuses who have suffered dating violence is high, it’s like 10%*, and I think that’s significant.
It’s a pretty intense, direct conversation about these issues. It’s been great to get a sense from them to hear what they think about the rules.
NSB: How do you think your investigative background informs your current position at Columbia?
MF: I started out as a sex crimes prosecutor in Brooklyn during the mid to late 80’s and early 90’s, when crime was at an all time high in New York. I was investigating and trying a lot of cases, a lot of rape cases, and I began to understand how unique that kind of trauma is and how to speak to somebody who has been victimized in that way. […] So because it was such a busy time in New York, I got a lot of experience trying those cases very quickly. And then I moved to Queens, where I headed up the special victims bureau [where] I’d probably be interviewing somebody who was a victim of a sexual assault almost every day. […] I love being with people, particularly kids and teens. In Brooklyn I was on a steady diet of homicides and rape cases, but in Queens I was doing a lot of cases involving child homicides.
So, I think that my experience […] was very helpful to me when I started at the consulting company I worked for, because I would travel to colleges and universities and do these investigations. It’s different, I mean, I’m not playing the prosecutors role by any means now; it’s an educational investigation and decision. So it is very different, but I feel like the way I learned to speak to people and the kind of evidence I was interested in gathering, to try and get to the answer about what happened, has been extremely helpful to me. You know there wasn’t really much of a learning curve, when going out and talking to someone who was alleging sexual misconduct. And I was doing a lot of training, and it’s a different space now, but still was good experience to have. A lot of students are interested in my background too, so when you talk about this they tune in; they’re interested in special victims because of SVU and that’s this line of work.
The goal in both of these kinds of spaces, although they’re both very different, is to get to what happened. Although the burden of proof is very different in the criminal courtroom — I had to have proof beyond a reasonable doubt, while now I need a preponderance of evidence. […] I feel that same dedication to getting to the right answer.
NSB: That work must have been really harrowing after a time.
MF: I have to tell you, I absolutely loved it. I felt like I was doing good every single day. And another thing that happens, especially when you’re meeting children, maybe who’ve been abused. […] You go home every day, and you think to yourself how lucky am I? It gave me perspective.
NSB: Do you think your background in criminal prosecution will result in more cases being adjudicated in favor of the complainant?
MF: No. I think if you know anything about being a DA, your job is to make sure that justice is done. And the great thing about being a DA is that if you didn’t have sufficient evidence — I was the bureau chief — I had the power to say, “We’re not going through with this.” As opposed to being a defense attorney, where if you were assigned a case or representing somebody, even if you suspected that they did it you had to do the best you could for them. So I sort of think that the prosecutors job is just to do the right thing. And I feel like that’s completely transferable to this. […] When I came here, nobody ever said, “You need to find this way.”; it was always, “Please just find out what happened for us.” And that’s what I did for thirty years.
NSB: How do you think the University’s investigations ought to relate to criminal investigations?
MF: What I do know — because I did investigations in many places across the country — what I found was that very few complainants go to the police. Oftentimes at trainings that I do, or in my personal life, people ask me, “Why don’t these people go to the police?” And I really understand that there are a lot of students that just don’t want to go there. They feel like it would be too intrusive, too emotionally draining, take too long. It could take at least a year and a half, maybe two to get to trial. There are a lot of students who just can’t see that far down the road to spend that much time dedicated to a criminal prosecution. […] But I think in New York, where you have specialized units in hospitals to handle these cases, you have special victims detective squads… there’s a part of me that doesn’t understand why people aren’t more trustworthy of law enforcement. But they’re not. And I’m probably not going to change that. And so I would encourage anybody who, say they came in and talked to me […] I would say to them that it’s up to you. If you decide you’re more comfortable using the University’s process, I have 100% confidence they’ll do a terrific job. They have well trained investigators here, and case workers that they don’t have anywhere else, and they’ll take care of anything you need. But if you have the instinct to talk to the DA or a person in special victims, then I would say try it and see how you feel. It just may be that certain people don’t want to do that.
NSB: There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the way Universities handle gender-based misconduct cases lately. In the wake of stories like Emma Sulkowitz’s Mattress Project and the Stanford case — campus gender misconduct cases are increasingly publicized. With so much in the news, how do you think the conversation around sexual misconduct on campus has changed, and how do you think that affects your role at the school?
MF: When I train, I talk to the students — particularly the athletes — about what happens when an athlete is accused, and the answers are usually that everybody is talking about it, there’s a lot more publicity, it shines a light on the athlete and everyone on the team. And I think those answers are all true. And I think two or three years ago compared to now, there’s been a tremendous increase in coverage. It has become a part of the national conversation. I think it has changed the conversation in this country to a world where before kids are going to school, kids are talking about it. In California, they passed a law requiring that every high school educate their students about consent. So if that’s the fallout from increased coverage, I think that’s a good thing. I think people are realizing that they need to talk to their kids probably long before they go to college about respecting their partner and the role of consent in relationships. I would say it’s discouraging to read that there are cases in the news every day, but I do think it’s making people think about it and talk about it. [It will] hopefully shift the culture, so that when a student is in a room with another person who may be incapacitated they’re thinking ‘maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.’
I think it’s a national conversation, and that’s important, because that’s how you change culture. I don’t think it affects the process at a particular university.
NSB: What is the reasoning behind the new policy forbidding student recording during meetings? [Author’s note: A recent No Red Tape petition against the new policy, which forbids student recording during gender based misconduct meetings and hearings, has recently begun circulating.]
MF: The policy came out several weeks ago. I actually just got the petition in my mailbox and I haven’t read it carefully yet, but I know the gist of it; I know that the students are concerned that they can’t record the hearings or the meetings. I’ll tell you my view — and keep in mind that I haven’t read the whole petition yet — I’m well familiar with the policy. And I’ve visited a ton of campuses, so I’m familiar with a ton of policies, and I’d say that most universities do not permit the recording by the students during any meeting or hearing. The reason for that is […] in an interview, for example, you’ll have a second person in the room who’s a notetaker and you’ll have a lead interviewer. And the advantage of having two is that you can talk about what you’ve heard. I’ve become an excellent notetaker in the past few years, because most schools don’t allow anybody to record. I will tell you that one of the reasons I’d be concerned about having you record — and you would also have access to the other party’s recording — I’d be very worried about where that recording might end up. These are investigations that are on a need to know basis […] so the idea of you having a recording of what you said and what the other party said would concern me, not because I don’t trust you [specifically], but because I’d be really concerned it could end up posted somewhere and that people all over the campus could learn about the most personal things. Based upon my experience in this field, many witnesses are concerned with who will know about this and what people will know about what they said. Although that’s not everybody, it’s some people. So my concern is [that] the confidentiality we have around this could be sacrificed by somebody’s desire to record. My experience in this business is that we are able to write down pretty much everything people say, and keep a very strong transcript. And I don’t have concerns about that. I’d have greater concerns about where these recordings would end up.
As our interview wraps up, I ask AVP Fisher whether she has any final words for the student body. She pauses to think, still a picture-perfect detective against the exposed brick wall of her office.
“If you see somebody here that’s heading down a dangerous path,” she finally says, “If you see they’re incapacitated by alcohol or drugs and someone is taking them somewhere, and you’re worried. If your first thought when you see it is, ‘I’m glad that’s not me’, then your next thought should be: how can I help?”
*Nearly 1 in 3 (29%) college women say they have been in an abusing dating relationship. (Source)
[Author’s Note: Because this interview took place five days before publication, certain details (such as quotations by Marjory Fisher on the student recording petition) may have since changed.]
Photo courtesy of a detective recruiting site