Georgetown University has appointed Sarah Onori as its new Title IX investigator, filling a full-time position that has been vacant since June 2019.
Onori formerly served as the equal opportunity and Title IX investigator at Northeastern University. As investigator, Onori will oversee student Title IX investigations, investigate employee civil rights discrimination and harassment complaints, and conduct university climate assessments, the university announced in a Feb. 18 news release. Onori will also focus on improving community engagement with the Office of Title IX Compliance and contributing to training initiatives, according to Title IX Coordinator Samantha Berner.
The university has not had a full-time Title IX investigator since Berner simultaneously served as Title IX investigator and interim Title IX coordinator until late June 2019. While the university conducted its search for a full-time investigator, several temporary investigators shared the responsibility of investigating sexual misconduct cases filed by students against their peers, according to Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Rosemary Kilkenny (LAW ’87).
The university spent months conducting its search for a new Title IX investigator to ensure it found a candidate with the necessary experience for the role, according to Berner.
“This role is an extremely important position, not only to the Title IX office, but for the Georgetown community as a whole, so we approached our national search with extreme care,” Berner wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Students have criticized long vacancies in the Title IX office. After former Title IX investigator Laura Cutway left unexpectedly in June 2018, Berner served as both interim coordinator and investigator, prompting students and student groups, such as H*yas for Choice and The Corp, to demand the university publicly address the lack of a full-time dedicated coordinator in a September letter emailed to university administration. Ten months later, Berner transitioned to full-time Title IX coordinator.
The university did not publicly announce Cutway’s departure or Berner’s appointment to the campus community.
The lack of transparency and expediency in the Title IX office’s hiring processes is concerning, according to HFC Vice President Chad Gasman (COL ’20).
“We’re angry that it took the University this long to provide a resource that students deserve, need, and had been asking for for months,” Gasman wrote in a statement to The Hoya. “It demonstrates a lack of care on the part of the University and specifically a disregard to the needs of the University’s most marginalized and unsupported communities.”
Since qualified investigators handled students’ sexual misconduct cases in the interim, the lack of a full-time investigator had no impact on the quality of university support, according to Kilkenny.
“There has never been any compromise in the University’s ability to provide excellent investigatory services in the Title IX arena,” Kilkenny wrote.
Among undergraduate students at Georgetown, 31.6% of women and 11.6% of men reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college, according to the results of the 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct. Georgetown reported higher rates of sexual assault compared to other universities who participated in the national survey.
The search committee to find a new Title IX investigator included key campus partners, community members and students, according to Berner. The committee looked specifically for an experienced candidate who had an appreciation for Jesuit values and was compatible with the Georgetown community, according to Berner.
As the investigator at Northeastern, Onori gained experience conducting investigations, drafting reports and advising students about Title IX rights and resources, she wrote.
In addition to her most recent work at Northeastern, Onori also served as an assistant district attorney in Plymouth County, Mass. These professional experiences will help inform Onori’s work as Title IX investigator at Georgetown, according to Kilkenny.
“Sarah Onori is a seasoned investigator with a proven track record not only in higher education, but also in our judicial system,” Kilkenny wrote. “Her experience uniquely equips her to fairly and evenhandedly work with the parties involved in sexual misconduct cases and we are looking forward to integrating her into the team of talented colleagues involved in the adjudicatory process.”
Onori’s experiences growing up in a first-generation Nigerian family and studying at Boston College, a Jesuit university, instilled in her a passion for service to others, she wrote.
“I am enthusiastic to be a part and contribute to that mission at Georgetown and serve the community by being a neutral and impartial investigator on discrimination and harrassment matters,” Onori wrote in an email to The Hoya.
The move to hire Onori comes alongside a broader effort by the university to improve Title IX processes. The university released a January 2019 statement underscoring its commitment to ensuring Title IX processes are adjudicated fairly in response to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ plans to release Title IX guidelines that would narrow the definition of sexual harassment, expand the rights of those accused of sexual misconduct and limit liability for institutions.
Georgetown is preparing for potential new regulations that may come from DeVos’ plans in the coming months, according to a university spokesperson.
“Georgetown remains committed to its programs, resources and initiatives to combat sexual assault and to fostering a safe environment for the entire community,” the university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The University will continue to focus on sexual misconduct education and prevention, support for individuals impacted, and prompt and equitable processes to respond to reports and complaints of sexual misconduct.”
The appointment of a full-time Title IX investigator is key to fostering a community free from sexual and discriminatory harassment, according to LGBTQ Resource Center and Women’s Center Director Shiva Subbaraman.
“At the LGBTQ Center and the Women’s Center we are certainly very pleased with the appointment of Sarah Onori as Title IX investigator,” Subbaraman wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Some of these searches are far more complicated and long drawn out than many imagine it to be, and we are really glad that we have been able to secure a seasoned professional.”