The University of New Hampshire (UNH) Student Senate, aided by members of UNH administration, led a discussion on internal Title IX reform and confirmed Devon Guyer as their interim speaker on Sunday, March 1. The Senate’s actions come as it strives to institute reform and a new path forward following investigations into accusations of political and sexual misconduct and harassment against multiple former and current members by its former speaker and parliamentarian. 

The Senate’s second gathering since the end of last semester, held at 6 p.m. in Murkland 115, suspended parliamentary procedures as it invited Senior Vice Provost and Dean of Students John T. Kirkpatrick and University System of New Hampshire (USNH) Special Counsel Tracy Birmingham to talk about the basics and intricacies of Title IX, and how it stands to play a major role in ethical reform. The meeting’s urgency stemmed from a report, released in a modified form by UNH administration in January, that alleged such things as “hostility and antagonism” between senators and senior members of the body, a “hostile climate toward women senators and officers” described by multiple members as a “boys club,” and selective “grooming” by Senate leaders of some members at the expense of others. 

As the report was being released earlier this semester, both former Student Senate Speaker Nicholas LaCourse and former Parliamentarian and Deputy Speaker David Cerullo resigned from their positions; according to The New Hampshire on Feb. 13, it remains unclear whether their resignations are related to the university’s ongoing investigations into the body. 

“Unfortunately, the weight of the evidence led to the conclusion that adherence to Senate ‘tradition’ too often results in current Senators deciding to leave the body and abandon their own visions for how to meet the needs of current students,” the January report stated. “The Office of Affirmative Action and Equity and the Dean will charge the Senate itself to examine its by-laws with the help of a panel of outside experts, to devise ways of recruiting, training and selecting future leaders that honors 21st century norms of gender equality, human dignity and fairness, while preserving the Senate’s role as an independent voice for UNH student interests.” 

During the body’s hour-long guest speaker segment, Kirkpatrick urged for internal reform based around Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits gender discrimination in educational settings, would be an ideal solution to achieving the report’s “21st century norms.” The dean took time early on to recite the entire statement to the body, which reads as follows: 

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” 

According to Kirkpatrick, Title IX has expanded since its inception to cover a “broader application” regarding sexual discrimination, assault and harassment when it was extended by the passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act in 1988 to include any educational institution receiving federal funding, whether directly or indirectly.  

“It’s not a choice, it’s not a negotiation; they must,” he said. “…in this country, it’s an effort to create an even playing field, and that must apply for men and women both equally, so it’s true of anything that happens at the University; of there is any inequitable treatment by a gender at this institution, then we’ve run afoul with Title IX.” 

While Kirkpatrick said that UNH has taken “complimentary” steps to comply with Title IX over the years, he stressed that concerns over conduct within the Senate are not new – the dean recalled similar talks he held with body members nearly five years ago when they decided to become part of UNH’s Shared Governance Structure alongside bodies like the Faculty Senate instead of a student organization. Per the dean, a different status meant a different approach to regulating internal conduct; had the body still identified as a student organization when the report and allegations emerged, the controversy would have prompted Kirkpatrick – who assumed an “overseer” role when the Student Senate made the switch – to place the entire body through Community Standards’ conduct process. 

In his efforts to identify a new strategy for assessing potential reform, Kirkpatrick stressed that he is less interested in “assessing penalty” than in “working collaboratively with all of you in the Leadership on a new way of being here at UNH.” He also expressed interest in working with the body’s newest members, particularly first-year senators. 

“…I look especially to your experience here in your remaining three years here at UNH beyond this one because you will have arguably the largest voice and the largest say in helping enact what we do this spring here at UNH in the Student Senate,” he said. 

Birmingham then led a discussion with present members about what Title IX-related reform looks like, as well as what could be considered appropriate and inappropriate conduct down the road. 

“We are very focused, obviously, on compliance,” she said, “but on this issue, it is a lot less about what we’re required to do as a bare legal minimum than it is about doing what we should be doing, and I think this…body of future leaders have an opportunity here, and I really welcome what Dean Kirkpatrick is doing here…this isn’t a place to say, ‘where are we looking for blame;’ it’s looking for ‘how can we do things differently?’” 

Birmingham called Title IX and its expansion of coverage over the years a “bellwether” for the community and the United States as a whole, symbolized by previous visits to the Durham from national figures like former Vice President Joe Biden who promoted Obama-era efforts to expand Title IX coverage and stressed the importance of student leaders and opportunities for more students to get involved in leadership roles. 

“It [Title IX] recognized that sexual harassment and sexual violence was something that was impeding people’s access to educational opportunities, and I think it was a really important bellwether change for us,” the counsel said. “…this is an opportunity for this group to focus on that [leadership] and see what we can do differently so we can do better.” 

A key portion of the segment included questions from members like Student Body Vice President Kelsey Crowley about mandatory reporting and how much of Senate is required to take part in the practice; Kirkpatrick responded that “all” faculty, staff, administration and other UNH officials, such as those in the Shared Governance Structure the Student Senate calls home, are required to be mandatory reporters.  

“When it comes to students and graduate students, it gets a little murky,” he said, adding that he and members of the USNH, including Birmingham, have been conducting “very constructive meetings” about the subject in order to help provide future clarity. 

“Nobody’s going to be thrown in jail over this, because I know you worry and have a lot of anxiety about that,” Kirkpatrick stressed. “I would say the guiding principle for right now is do the right thing when you hear a report of sexual violence,” and to reach out to authorities such as Title IX Coordinator and Director Donna Marie Sorrentino and UNH Police Chief Paul Dean if and when emergencies arise. 

In an effort to bridge the complexities of the situation, Birmingham emphasized how sexual harassment and violence covered by Title IX are “extensions” of gender discrimination and how it can affect both males and females. However, the special counsel admitted that the line “blurs” when it comes to defining the differences between harassment and violence, a grey area she labelled a definite “impediment.” 

“If there is something that you are seeing in your day-to-day where you say, ‘this doesn’t feel right,’ it’s generally a good indication to say, ‘if it doesn’t feel right to you, that that doesn’t feel like if you were standing in that person’s shoes who’s on the receiving end of that,’ that’s probably the kind of behavior we’re talking about…someone is feeling like they can’t participate because of their gender,” Birmingham advised. 

Following the guest speakers, the Senate resumed normal duties, but not before confirming Guyer as their speaker pro tempore, otherwise known as the body’s interim speaker before a new one will be chosen at the end of the semester. 

Prior to its unanimous passing, Kirkpatrick told the body he selected Guyer based on her experience in Senate and her sole opposition to former Speaker LaCourse’s reelection near the end of Session 40 last year; he added that the selection would allow others who had nominated themselves the week before to run for a long-term speaker position down the road. 

Student Trustee Cailee Griffin, meanwhile, took time to thank the other nominees for participating in last week’s nomination round for the speakership, stating that “it obviously means a lot to everybody that you’re willing to step up and work for students like that and I know that students appreciate it, too, especially at this time.”  

“I do think this is the right thing that we…all support this, though,” she added, “because the idea is that if we’re going to draft these bylaws now with a person who’s not going to be running again because she’s a senior and won’t be here next year, that means that the incoming speaker comes in with a brand-new set of bylaws that they did not shape, so they do not have any incentive to shape the bylaws in their personal interests at this time.” 

Following the vote, Student Activity Fee Committee (SAFC) Chair Gareth Jones, who had been officiating the meeting for the night, passed the symbolic torch with Guyer by swapping seats with her. Interim Speaker Guyer immediately followed the vote by presiding over a bill – introduced by Student Body President Allison MacPhee, Student Body Vice President Crowley and Trustee Griffin – that approved Community Development Council Chair Elza Brechbuhl and Sens. Abby LaRochelle (Alexander) and Raeanna Hunter (Mills 1) as the newest members of the Election Committee, which passed unanimously. The same three authors also introduced a bill approving a new “Code of Ethics Task Force;” the bill passed the body unanimously and includes Guyer, MacPhee, Crowley, Executive Officer Annah Santarosa, Fraternity and Sorority Life Chair James Firsick, Academic Affairs Council Chair Jennifer Hargenrader, First Year Representative Hannah Falcone, and Sens. Paulette Niwewase (Hubbard), Meagan McLean (Non-Res. 4), Hannah Falcone (Gibbs), Raeanna Hunter (Mills 1) and Jordan Aylesworth (Non-Res. 3). 

The night’s final bill – the authors’ “Approval of Bylaw Revision Task Force Members” – saw most of the previous bill’s cast join in to the second task force on top of new members such as Parker Armstrong and Sen. William He (Lord). The bill passed unanimously. 

Following the passing of the bylaw revision bill, the Senate ultimately adjourned at 7:46 p.m.