Molly Peirano

Beyond athletics

Title IX and the future of gender equity on college campuses

Molly Peirano, a University of South Carolina alumna who recently led Title IX engagement and education initiatives at Ohio State University, has been leading the university’s new Office of Civil Rights and Title IX.

On the 50th anniversary of Title IX, UofSC Today talked with Peirano about her plans and goals for the office and the future of the landmark civil rights regulation that prohibits sex discrimination in any education program receiving federal funds.

Historically, Title IX has focused a lot on athletics, how would you describe the future of Title IX?

Often when I'm trying to explain what Title IX is, I start back at the beginning. There was a woman at the University of Maryland who earned her Ph.D. and, when she was trying to get hired, would hear things like, ‘We already have a woman in this department.’ ‘You come on too strong for a woman.’ Her name was Bernice Sandler, went by Bunny. And she's actually known as the ‘Godmother of Title IX.’

Sometimes we forget that this started as a faculty issue. When people look back at history, they think a lot of the athletic aspect, which was very important and brought a lot of attention that was well deserved. Now I would say we're more in the era of sexual misconduct and preventing it, keeping people safe.

But I do hope that we can bring some of the attention back to faculty issues and employment and scholarship. Even though we've made great strides in equity in those areas, we have a ways to go.

The main message I want people to get is ‘We want you to be treated well by us and by one another, regardless of what your identity is.’

What is a contemporary issue that is being seen on campuses that you would like to address?

If you look at the number of tenured faculty, you will still see that women are behind in those spaces, even just looking at the sheer number. I think looking at those pieces is helpful. Another part that often is not talked about in Title IX is pregnant and parenting students, who are protected under Title IX.

I am working on a Ph.D. and that's my area of study. And I can tell you over the last four years, there has been more research done in that space. How do we support pregnant students — keep them on our campuses, accommodate them so that they can have their children? Or if they have a miscarriage, are they able to re-enter or maybe not even leave, just have accommodation? I think that's an area that has not gotten the attention that it deserves.

What has been your first order of business in this position?

One of the first orders of business has been to create a comprehensive policy that is anti-discrimination, anti-harassment and anti-sexual misconduct. Right now, there's quite a few policies and it can be confusing for people to follow. And my thing with policy is people need to know what the expectations are if we want them to meet those expectations. Most people want to do the right thing. They just need to know what to do. We're creating one comprehensive policy, and we'll retire about six other policies. I think that'll help communicate our expectations to the community, let people know what their rights are, and it will help us be more efficient and effective in our work as an office.

We are also adding staff. Two of the first hires that I made are for what we're calling an intake function. When people come to the office, they have someone to share their experience with who can help go through what their immediate resources are then what their resolution options are. We want to restore agency back to people. We want to make sure that instead of just rushing it to an investigation or something like that, that people have time to think through what their options are and talk to someone so they can get that support first.

How are you going about creating this new policy?

There's a university policy process that we are following. We are doing some benchmarking from other institutions, and we've also heard the feedback from people who are currently here about what's working and what's not, as well as our own expertise having done this work at other institutions.

We also are getting feedback from different stakeholders across the institution. We've had a couple folks look at it from a faculty perspective, from an administration perspective. I also visited the undergraduate student government and let them know I would be sending a copy for feedback. I'm trying to get input from different folks, but we also want to have it in place by the beginning of the new school year so we can have a fresh start and launch our office more publicly.

I tell people, ‘We don't want to put up a new front door if there's nothing new behind it.’ We wanted any publicity to coincide with the policy, so people see we are delivering something more streamlined, easier to understand.

How did you get into this this line of work?

I knew I wanted to be in higher education. I had worked in sorority and fraternity life when I was an undergrad. Then I was a consultant and went to a lot of different college campuses. And I went back to school and got my master's — at the University of South Carolina — and I worked in student conduct while I was there. When I moved back to Ohio after grad school, I did not have a role that I wanted to accept yet. So I volunteered and got trained as a hospital advocate. I would go into the hospitals and be present with survivors of sexual assault while they were going through their nurse-examiner experience. After that, I realized that was an area I wanted to work in.

Eventually I got a role at Ohio State in Title IX, which I think kind of coupled the student conduct — the expectations/accountability piece — with the victim/survivor support piece. And it kind of brought those two worlds together.

What brought you back to USC?

I was in the Title IX job at Ohio State when I went to a wedding for a graduate school classmate, and someone said South Carolina was opening a Title IX office and ‘You could just come back and work with us.’ I looked at the posting and realized that it was a similar office to what I had done at Ohio State. And USC is an institution that means a lot to me. I knew there were going to be challenges, but I really think that the people at USC deserve having that access, having their options presented in an easy-to-understand way. So I just put my name in and thought, ‘Well, if it's meant to be, it will be.’

What is your early impression of the university’s commitment to working on these issues?

I was very impressed with all the work that had been done before I got here. You had the Title IX task force and its report. There was a lot of acknowledgement that there is a better way for us to serve people in this space. So I definitely appreciated that. I am also very grateful for how they've situated the office — I report to the president's chief of staff, which I think is very wise. And so it shows me that this is a priority for the institution and they strategically placed it so that we can be integrated in the work of the university but also have the autonomy to do what is right. I think that is very powerful for an institution.

Before I even came to USC, I got a call from President-elect Michael Amiridis, and he shared how important this work was and that he was looking forward to working together on this. To me, that said a lot that a president was willing and able to say that this is a priority. Based on the work he did where he's coming from, it's not just that he's saying it, he really lives it.

Do you ever foresee a time when it won't be necessary to have a Title IX coordinator on a college campus?

I think that anyone who's in prevention work hopes that they can work themselves out of a job. And honestly, there's so much work to do, not just at USC, but I would say nationwide. I would love to say, of course we can get there. But I do think that sometimes we get complacent, and people think ‘Oh, it's improved from 1972, so we're in good shape.’ But like I said, if you look at the percentage of tenured faculty or if you look at the pregnant and parenting students or the other areas, we have to stay on top of it. If we don't keep it top of mind, it's easy to slide back and we still have so much work to do. I know people deserve better.

People need to know what the expectations are if we want them to meet those expectations. Most people want to do the right thing. They just need to know what to do.

Your work is very intense. How do you relax? What do you do for fun?

I love to travel, so I'm very excited that it is kind of becoming more available and feels safer for me to do that.

I have a little 3-pound teacup Yorkie that I love to spend time with. His name is Monty, so he is a bundle of fun. I had a late meeting with students one night and I had just moved, so I didn't want to leave him alone yet. So I brought him. And as I was walking him across campus, I met more people with him than I had the whole first month I was here. So I told I told my boss, this could be a good idea just to walk him around campus every couple of weeks and meet a bunch of people.

I also try to work out because I always tell my employees in the office, ‘You have to be well, to do well.’ So I do try to run and exercise throughout the week.

I volunteer for other organizations because to your point, this can be so heavy. So it's nice to have like other things that require your time and attention. I volunteer with Delta Gamma, which is an international sorority. I work with different collegians across the country, and that's rejuvenating.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think the biggest thing about Title IX is there's all these other areas from recruitment to admissions to helping people have a good experience while they're here that we don't talk about. We should look at how are we bringing people to our institution and making sure that they have the learning and working environment that they deserve so they can go on and do great things. The main message I want people to get is ‘We want you to be treated well by us and by one another, regardless of what your identity is.’

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