President Joe Biden recently appointed Suzanne Goldberg, the former head of university life at Columbia University and one of the country’s top experts on gender and sexuality in law, to a critical Education Department role that will help shape new Title IX policies regarding how colleges and K-12 schools handle sexual misconduct investigations.
Based on her resume, Goldberg seems like the perfect pick for the role. As deputy assistant secretary for strategic operations and outreach at the Office of Civil Rights, she’s responsible for overseeing operational planning and outreach between OCR, the public and stakeholders at schools and advocacy organizations. But student sexual assault survivors from Columbia told HuffPost they have deep concerns, based on what they see as Goldberg’s long history of neglecting survivors at the school.
“I don’t think there’s a single student at Columbia who would say that Goldberg should have this job,” said Amelia Roskin-Frazee, a former Columbia student who says she was raped twice in 2015 in her dorm room. “It’s so dehumanizing to sexual assault survivors, because it’s not like Goldberg’s conduct is a secret.”
As of January, the Department of Education had five open investigations against Columbia for alleged Title IX violations. All five complaints were filed against the institution while Goldberg oversaw the Title IX department as the head of university life. In 2017, also during Goldberg’s tenure as head of university life, Columbia was tied for second place in terms of U.S. universities with the greatest number of open OCR complaints alleging Title IX guideline violations.
Roskin-Frazee and another former Columbia student, Brandee Blocker Anderson, told HuffPost it was an “open secret” at Columbia that Goldberg actively refused to listen to student advocates, especially student victims of sexual assault. They say Goldberg routinely dismissed victims and worked to protect the Columbia administration over survivors at all costs, despite her role in which she oversaw the Title IX office and was the special adviser to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger on sexual assault prevention and response.
“Goldberg’s only interest was covering up for the people under her and protecting those above her,” said Anderson, a Columbia Law School graduate who says she was sexually assaulted in 2015 during her first year at law school.
Both Roskin-Frazee and Anderson have filed formal complaints with the school regarding Goldberg and Columbia’s Title IX office. Roskin-Frazee originally filed an OCR complaint against Columbia and later sued the school. Anderson filed an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action complaint specifically against Goldberg for allegedly not properly supervising her subordinates and not following Title IX guidance.
When reached for comment, Columbia University referred HuffPost to a letter written by Bollinger to the university community announcing Goldberg’s departure for the Education Department. “We could not be more pleased and proud that she has chosen to bring her considerable talents and expertise to Washington, D.C.,” the university president wrote.
OCR did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. The Department of Education did not immediately offer a comment for the record.
After HuffPost reached out to Columbia and OCR for comment on detailed allegations included in this article, Brett Christensen, a third-year Columbia Law School student, got in touch.
“She cares a lot about the students, from my perspective, and she was certainly available,” said Christensen, a former research and teaching assistant for Goldberg. “From my perspective, and that’s really all I can speak to, talking to other people certainly at the law school, Professor Goldberg has a great reputation. She’s known as an advocate both for the LGBT community and also for women.”
Dr. Jennifer Hirsch, a current Columbia professor, also reached out after HuffPost attempted to contact Columbia, OCR and the Education Department for comment. Hirsch, a deputy chair for doctoral studies at the university, said she received my contact information from a Department of Education communications person.
“What I saw from Suzanne, again and again, was the hard work, intellect and tenacity that she brought to building a campus where everyone can thrive,” said Hirsch, who has worked closely with Goldberg on several projects.
Goldberg’s Multiple Roles At Columbia
Goldberg held the prestigious role of executive vice president for university life at Columbia from 2015 until this January, when Biden called her up to the big leagues. She boasts a long list of accomplishments, including founding Columbia Law School’s Sexuality & Gender Law Clinic and receiving the law school’s Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching. In 2008, she was named the law school’s Public Interest Faculty of the Year.
As head of university life, Goldberg oversaw student life on campus, working “to broaden and reinforce the university’s commitment to respect, inclusion, and ethical leadership among students, faculty, and administrators,” according to Columbia’s website. In that role, she directly supervised several departments, including the Title IX office.
Goldberg’s role as head of university life was so large that her job was riddled with conflicts of interest, which made it nearly impossible to hold her accountable for many of her missteps, Roskin-Frazee said. For example, Roskin-Frazee said Goldberg took on an additional role as the Title IX coordinator for a semester in 2016. During that time, Goldberg was still the head of university life, which directly oversaw the Title IX coordinator position Goldberg had assumed for the semester. Bollinger also appointed Goldberg to be the rules administrator, a role that involves disciplining students, including student activists who were protesting Goldberg’s conduct.
“I was pretty alarmed to see that she’s now at OCR,” said Dr. Raymond Givens, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia and associate director of the cardiac intensive care unit at Columbia’s Irving Medical Center.
Givens, who noted that he does not have an extensive amount of personal interaction with Goldberg, added that “it’s extremely concerning that these people have been elevated, and there’s been really no consequences.”
The last person to hold the position of deputy assistant secretary for strategic operations and outreach at OCR was the lawyer and author Candice Jackson. Unlike Jackson, who many believed had little experience to warrant the appointment, Goldberg does have a proven record of bridging gaps between institutions, administrators and students on the ground.
Still, both Roskin-Frazee and Anderson strongly agreed that Goldberg should not have been appointed to the OCR, given her track record with student sexual assault survivors at Columbia.
“In my mind, her leading that office is sending out the message that schools will never be accountable because Columbia has never been accountable,” Anderson said. “How can she hold any other schools accountable when the school that she was in charge of was the worst at helping survivors? It’s a slap in the face.”
Survivors’ Firsthand Experience
The two sexual assault survivors cited personal experience with Goldberg, telling HuffPost she was unavailable to students and that she implicitly condoned and created bad sexual misconduct policies. They said she often used her credentials as a queer woman to shield herself from criticism.
Roskin-Frazee, who is queer, said she was repeatedly targeted for her sexuality by her attacker when she was raped twice in the fall of 2015. When Roskin-Frazee told Goldberg about the first rape in a closed meeting with other survivors and advocates, she said Goldberg did not formally report the assault, even though she was required by the state to do so. When Roskin-Frazee was attacked again about two months later — likely by the same person — she said “Goldberg had absolutely no regrets from what I could tell,” even though Goldberg had neglected to take action that Roskin-Frazee believes could have stopped the second assault. (Columbia declined to comment on any specific accusations described in this article.)
“She’s spent years committing and overseeing Title IX violations and doing nothing about it,” Roskin-Frazee said. “And now she is in charge of enforcing Title IX nationwide while there are open investigations against Columbia. How does that work?”
Anderson, now 31, told HuffPost she was assaulted on a Thursday night in 2015. Directly after, she called the university’s rape crisis hotline and was put on hold for over an hour. On Friday morning, she reached out to several departments, including the law school and the Office of Disability Services, but no one was able to offer her immediate help. She reached out to Columbia’s counseling service center to speak with a therapist, but she was told no one would be available for at least two weeks.
Finally, she went directly to the head of university life ― Goldberg, who’d been one of her professors the semester before. Anderson felt Goldberg was repeatedly unavailable and “dismissive” to her, even though she was experiencing an emergency.
“She thought I wanted a hug from her, when I’m explaining that everyone who is supposed to be working for her is not doing their jobs,” Anderson said through tears. “I don’t want a hug, I want a counselor. I want to be able to go to class and feel safe. But this is how disconnected she is. I’ve been in so many meetings with her where she’s just so cold. There’s no level of humanity, no level of compassion.”
Controversial Policies At Columbia
Goldberg helped create Columbia’s current Gender-Based Misconduct Policy during her tenure at the university. Many of the guidelines implemented in the policy were highly controversial, and both Roskin-Frazee and Anderson fought the policy changes during their time with No Red Tape, Columbia’s anti-sexual violence organization.
There were several damaging provisions written into the Gender-Based Misconduct Policy, such as allowing sexual arousal to be considered when the school was trying to determine consent, and not classifying it as sexual coercion when one person threatened to out another as queer. Additionally, if a victim’s assailant had assaulted or harassed people in the past, the victim was not allowed to bring these people into the Title IX investigation as witnesses to corroborate a pattern of behavior. Some of these policies, like not counting a threat to out someone as sexual coercion, have since been changed due to pressure from student activists.
Goldberg was also the architect of a policy known to students as the recording ban, Roskin-Frazee and Anderson said. The policy threatened students with suspension or expulsion for recording or taking detailed notes during their own Title IX meetings, even though it’s legal to record such meetings in New York state. Roskin-Frazee said Goldberg defended the ban because recording meetings would “have a chilling effect on proceedings.”
The recording ban was created in September 2016, after Anderson’s Title IX investigation and right before Roskin-Frazee’s. Anderson believes Goldberg created the policy because Anderson recorded nearly all of her own Title IX meetings and had evidence to prove the Title IX office actively worked against her during her investigation.
The policy was so widely disliked by students, it marked one of the only times at Columbia that student victims and students accused of assault came together to fight a campus rule.
Givens, the assistant professor of medicine, overlapped a bit with Goldberg last summer when he was trying to get a Columbia building renamed because the building’s namesake was a slaveholder. He said concerns about Goldberg became very clear as he was talking to other advocates on campus.
“Talking to current and former students and faculty about some of their experiences, many of whom are sexual assault survivors,” he said, “the stories are pretty fairly consistent about the administration generally shutting people out and, specifically, Suzanne Goldberg was the agent who makes that happen.”
Givens believes Goldberg will be able to be more objective at OCR, he said, because at Columbia she was tasked with protecting Bollinger, the university’s president, “at all costs.” But Givens still worries what kind of message her appointment sends to sexual assault victims.
“I do wonder the fact that survivors are seeing this ― what kind of effect Goldberg’s appointment has on their confidence in the system?” he said. “It further undermines their ability to trust that the system is really going to work for them. It becomes a self-reinforcing thing: If people don’t trust the system, they’re less likely to report. And the whole thing falls apart.”
Roskin-Frazee was less optimistic, imagining what her own experience at Columbia would look like at the federal level.
“Who do you go to when the OCR violates your civil rights?” she asked. “I genuinely don’t know if there’s a place to go when that happens. And that’s what’s about to happen to students on a nationwide scale.”
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