Right after the federal Department of Justice released a lengthy report slamming the University of New Mexico for mishandling sexual assault cases, UNM President Robert Frank held a news conference and questioned the investigators’ methods. KUNM's Marisa Demarco sat down with Frank to find out how seriously UNM’s president takes the federal criticism.
FRANK: If one case, if one victimization or harassment happens on this campus, that’s one too many. This is one of our priorities right now, having a safe campus, a campus where everybody can come here and be absolutely confident that they are in a good place. It’s an ultimate priority for us.
KUNM: One of the things the DOJ said in the report a couple of different ways was that there’s this overall impression that UNM doesn’t take this seriously or is kind of shuffling these cases, these allegations, under the rug and just really trying to get past them and preserve it’s appearance more than it’s really trying to get the root of campus safety. Is that something that you’re thinking about as you move forward?
FRANK: Well of course. And that’s why I was disappointed that they didn’t do the last year of sampling that I felt they should have done. They didn’t look at the new OEO coordinator. They didn’t look at our new investigator. They didn’t look at the Lobo Advocacy Center. They didn’t look at any of those centers, and then they said, 'Oh, you’re putting things under the rug.' Well, we weren’t putting things under the rug. We were building, building, building. And so their criticisms weren’t valid in that regard.
KUNM: Do you acknowledge that some students are having their academic careers derailed after they’ve experienced sexual assault or harassment here because of the way the process unfolds?
FRANK: Of course. That happens on any campus. The nature of sexual assault, sexual harassment is that it’s traumatizing. It’s very damaging to one’s life. So yes, there’s no question about that.
KUNM: But particularly because of UNM mishandling those investigations, and those penalties, and the timelines for those investigations.
FRANK: We’ve now improved our process so it’s better. The Department of Education standards are cumbersome, demanding and probably not as efficient for victims or for accused as they should be. And they require certain steps that are not in the best interests of all involved in my view.
KUNM: So it’s true that these problems have been found on campuses all over the country. But UNM is one of only two schools to be investigated by the Department of Justice—not just the Department of Education but by the Department of Justice. How much weight does that have for you?
FRANK: For me personally, the fact that the Department of Justice came here is still a mystery. They never clarified why they came to our campus. They’ve never created a persuasive case to me of why our university was chosen. The things that they pointed out to us, I think are probably very similar to other universities in America. Now, that said, I’m glad they came. They’ve showed us things we can improve to make our campus safer, and we’re working very hard to collaborate with them to be the best campus we can, the safest campus in America. And we’ll continue to work at it.
KUNM: So the report examines failures of UNM’s investigations at length both by UNMPD and by OEO. Do you intend to address those issues in those departments? And how?
FRANK: We’re writing a letter back to Department of Justice right now to demonstrate what we’ve done. If they have more advice for us, we’ll take it and incorporate it. You know, the challenge we face right now—that every university in America faces—is how do you do this better in such limited budget times? If we had an unlimited budget, we’d hire 10 investigators for this. We’d be much faster at it.
KUNM: And have you met with OEO and UNMPD yet to go through this report point-by-point?
FRANK: What we’re in the process of doing now is drafting our response. And as we draft our response, then we’re going to meet with our departments as we go through the process.
KUNM: Maybe you can outline kind of what you see are the next steps in the coming year.
FRANK: In our view the Department of Justice report is just another effort to improve— maybe a big effort, a huge effort—to improve our quality of making our campus safer. We’ll continue to look at what they said, and we’ll take every bit of advice and direction they give us—it’s more than advice obviously—to try and improve everything they say to us.