DOJ grant loss sparks change for WSU

McKenna Scherer, Editor-in-Chief

After the loss of a grant from the Department of Justice that funded many gender-based violence education initiatives and programs, Winona State is looking to hire its first full-time advocate.

Tamara Berg, director of the women’s, gender and sexuality studies department at the university, was also the primary principle investigator and grant writer for the lost federal grant.

The university received the grant in 2013, funding peer advocacy and gender-based violence education programs on campus like the RE Initiative and PACT Training for years, until it was not renewed in 2019.

Berg said it has been “over a year now of not having those services.”

However, the university is now in the process of hiring a full-time advocate, a position that will be housed in the Office of Equity and Inclusive Excellence.

Jonathan Locust, associate vice president of the office of equity and inclusive excellence, said it was a decision that made sense to him, members of the school’s sexual violence advisory committee and those at the state level as well.

Locust said the advocate position is both necessary and beneficial, as the advocate would be there to fully support students regarding not only gender-based violence situations but also issues that may arise regarding equity and inclusion.

Sarah Olcott, long-time member of the sexual violence advisory committee, said it was an interesting but “really good” decision to place the advocate position with the equity and inclusion office.

“In the job description, not only is there advocacy in it, but there’s also support for under-represented, underserved students for discrimination cases,” Olcott said. “I’m just excited to see how that’s going to work.”

However, one of the resources the lost grant helped fund was Winona State’s campus climate survey, which has not occurred since the loss of the grant.

Berg said she feels it is unfortunate the university has not provided further advocacy services on campus since the grant ended, including the campus climate survey, but also that it may not be in compliance with state law.

“We’re required to do a campus climate survey by state statute, and we didn’t do one last year,” Berg said.

However, Locust said many institutions do not do yearly campus climate surveys for several reasons, including the costliness of them.

“Many institutions will do those types of surveys every three years instead because by then you have a whole new group of students,” Locust said. “They’re expensive to do, so institutions like community colleges and others can’t afford doing those every year.”

Berg also said she had conducted the survey herself for five years and Lori Mikl, the university’s director of affirmative action/equity and legal affairs and Title IX coordinator, did not continue the survey last year, “even though she said she was going to.”

However, Mikl said there were several reasons why she chose not to conduct the campus climate survey last year, including that there is no requirement under state law or Title IX to conduct a campus climate survey regarding sexual violence or sexual harassment.

Mikl said there were new upcoming Title IX regulations at the time, which she wanted to wait for before issuing a survey.

“I did not send out a separate sexual violence climate survey in 2018 as the campus conducted a campus wide climate survey that year which included survey questions regarding sexual violence [and] sexual harassment,” Mikl said.

When COVID-19 caused Winona State, and many institutions across the U.S. and the world, to close last spring, it also factored into her decision not to roll out the survey.

“The next survey should have been in Spring 2020, however as you recall, last spring was an unusual semester,” Mikl said.

Mikl said she is currently working on a new campus climate survey and plans to send it out campus-wide “later this spring”.

Olcott also mentioned COVID as a factor regarding why the full-time advocate position was not implemented earlier.

“I think it was really the perfect storm of timing,” Olcott said. “Because last winter, I believe December of 2019, we brainstormed the idea of the position and then the wheels moved, but slowly, but then COVID hit.”

Olcott said members of the sexual violence action committee and “all the stakeholders” gathered in December of 2019 and brainstormed the position, which was thought of as two separate positions.

Olcott said one of the two advocacy positions would run more events and programs, like PACT Training and with student mentors, while the other would be the full-time advocate on campus to connect with and support students.

“I don’t want to blame [COVID], we should have kept moving, but really everyone was just scrambling to figure out jobs and hiring,” Olcott said.

Winona State University President Scott Olson “committed” to have the advocacy position on campus, Olcott said, and said the job creation and hiring process would have happened quicker if not for COVID.

Winona State has been enduring a million-dollar budget deficit, first announced to students in the fall of 2019, which has only worsened since the start of COVID.

The university saw significant financial losses due to COVID, including the loss of $1.7 million in revenue from the losses of bookstore sales, Chartwells commissions, etc.

Even prior to the financial losses from COVID, the university had implemented the Board Early Separation Incentive Program (BESI) last spring in hopes of helping their budget deficit.

BESI offered eligible employees a monetary incentive to enter early retirement, a move that offered faculty and staff to move on from the university before it had to resort to layoffs or other tactics due to the worsening budget deficit.

Of the 108 offers made, 24 BESI offers were accepted, according to the school’s chief financial officer, Scott Ellinghuysen.

Olcott said she was not sure if the university’s increasing budget deficit was also a factor as to why the advocate position process had been in the works for some time.

“I think even in a budget crisis, if something is important, money can be found,” Olcott said. “He’s [Olson] a trustworthy man, [but] I wasn’t part of that conversation, so no, I’m not really sure if that was a factor.”

The Office of Affirmative Action and Legal Affairs, of which Mikl is the Director, is also responsible for overseeing the hiring process for campus faculty, Mikl said. This responsibility can also include making recommendations or questioning qualifications or responsibilities in a position description for clarity, which Mikl did for the full-time advocacy position.

Mikl said she requested feedback from the Minnesota State Office of Equity and Inclusion to “ensure the responsibilities outlined in the position were in alignment with the new Title IX regulations”.

“I do think it’s a very important position. I think it’s something that’s gone unfilled for over a year now,” Berg said. “And I would love to see it come to fruition.”