Sarah Wake, associate provost and director of the Office for Equal Opportunity Programs, joined the University last October to oversee efforts to ensure all members of the UChicago community are treated equitably.
Wake’s office works to increase campus and website accessibility; designs and administers affirmative action programs; handles complaints of discrimination based on race, religion, age, disability, and other protected categories; and ensures compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects members of educational institutions that receive federal funding from discrimination based on sex.
A native of Benton Harbor, Michigan, and graduate of Loyola University Chicago, Wake previously directed the Office of Institutional Equity and served as the Title IX coordinator at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned her JD.
She spoke to the Magazine about her work to create a more inclusive campus.
What led you to pursue this kind of work?
As a senior in college I volunteered at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in the victim witness assistance unit, preparing survivors of sexual assault to testify at trial. Trials can be long and draining and difficult for people who have experienced trauma. Working with the survivors had a huge impact on me. I continued to think about it in law school, where I researched the high occurrence of sexual assault within our prison system. I published an article that contained a proposal for how to reduce the occurrence, which I eventually presented to a group that was working with Congress to think about the issue.
After law school I worked at McGuireWoods in Chicago and New York, focusing on employment litigation. The experience reiterated to me the importance of process and policies that are balanced and fair and afford both parties due process.
When I left in 2013 for Notre Dame, I got to work with students on a day-to-day basis. These experiences taken together have given me the policy side and the process side, but then also the opportunity to work with students, faculty, and staff and hear how difficult these situations are for them in a way that you don’t get to do when you’re working at a law firm. It’s been incredibly gratifying to use my knowledge of the law—which I love—to make a positive change in an educational community and people’s experiences in it.
Why did you come to UChicago?
I left my alma mater to come here, and the reason was twofold. First, I was impressed by the leadership from the time that I interviewed. I report directly to the provost, I interact regularly with the president, and I have without exception sensed a deep commitment to these issues from them. Second, I believe in the values that the University of Chicago stands for: free expression, rigorous inquiry, and asking big questions. In order to uphold the University’s commitment to these values, it’s important that people from all backgrounds and perspectives feel they can contribute to the conversation.
Tell me about your office’s work on accessibility.
I work in close partnership with Student Disability Services to ensure that we are providing reasonable accommodations for students, faculty, and staff with disabilities. We engage with students to hear what they need from us to succeed in their academic programs, and we have a similar process with faculty and staff to make sure they’re able to focus on their work. This includes identifying places on campus that we can make more physically accessible and making sure that our community members are afforded access to University websites and online course materials.
What does your work on affirmative action programs entail?
As the affirmative action officer for the University, I have oversight of the design and implementation of our programs to strengthen the hiring and promotion of women, racial and ethnic minorities, individuals with disabilities, veterans, and members of the LGBTQ-plus community. Every year we put together a plan that looks at the makeup of our divisions and departments, and we think strategically about how to proactively recruit and retain people from these protected classes. We’re now in a process of thinking about how to further enhance these efforts in both our recruiting pools and our workforce.
What is the University doing to address and reduce sexual harassment, discrimination, and misconduct?
We are currently one of nearly 200 institutions under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), a division of the US Department of Education that has responsibility to enforce Title IX. We have always cooperated and will continue to cooperate with the OCR on the investigation, while also taking many proactive steps to increase and enhance our response to allegations of sexual misconduct, and to ultimately eliminate this behavior on campus.
One of these steps is that we’re talking more to students about what their challenges are and how we can help them. One example is that the provost’s office is forming a student advisory board as a way to interact with students and get a sense of how they’re feeling about things and what they want to see in training programs and initiatives. We recently hired a deputy Title IX coordinator for students, Shea Wolfe. Shea is focusing on helping students with resources and giving them information about process and policies. She’s holding open office hours every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., so anybody who wants to stop by and ask a question has the opportunity to interact with her.
I think this will be very impactful, and I’ve taken the same approach with faculty and staff, which is to go out and meet them, hear about what it’s like to be here, what their challenges are, and how we can help identify and address problematic behavior.
And a key thing we’ve done in the last year is to implement a mandatory training program regarding sexual misconduct for all students, faculty, other academic appointees, postdocs, and staff. This training was implemented at the recommendation of a faculty committee, and this recommendation was well received by the Committee of the Council and the Council of the University Senate.
What does the training cover?
The training provides a baseline understanding of expectations, procedures, and resources, and gives examples of behaviors that must be reported to the University. We started online training for second- through fourth-year College students, graduate students, and professional school students this September. First-year College students received both online and in-person training during Orientation Week and prior to their arrival on campus. And online training for staff is beginning this fall. This training also covers being an effective bystander—identifying and stopping discriminatory or harassing behavior as it’s occurring.
For faculty and other academic appointees, I started giving in-person training last October. In my very first week here, a department in the Physical Sciences Division reached out to me for training. The faculty have been very supportive and engaged in the process.
How has increased media attention to Title IX issues affected your work?
The heightened attention to the issue of sexual violence and sexual harassment on college campuses has really allowed us to make progress in this area, particularly with how schools are thinking about training and outreach. I find the attention extremely positive because it makes people feel freer to talk about behaviors like sexual harassment, sexual assaults, and stalking that were harder to bring up and identify even five or 10 years ago.
I’ve gotten to speak to some of our own faculty members about their experiences coming up in their professions, and I have my own experiences working in the legal profession. Much more than in the past, the message is that gender-based harassment (or any type of unlawful harassment) should not be part of being a student, a lawyer, a scientist, or any professional. And I think that’s a great outcome.