On Friday, May 30, Syracuse University’s Chancellor Kent Syverud emailed a memo to students and faculty about changes and restructuring the university will be making in the coming year. The five-page memo, which was obtained by BuzzFeed, includes news that Syracuse’s Advocacy Center, which provides support and services to students who have experienced sexual assault and violence, will be shut down on June 4. Students seeking services and resources regarding sexual assault and violence will now be relegated to the university’s Counseling Center.
The “Student Affairs Sexual Violence Support Services” section of the memo reads:
“As I mentioned in my May 12th memo, the University has been actively reviewing and assessing its sexual violence support services, structures, and policies. I also indicated that necessary changes will be implemented over the course of the summer to ensure that we are in compliance with best practices in this area.
One step in this process is that the Division of Student Affairs will be realigning key departments to create a stronger and more integrated set of University support services for students impacted by sexual violence. Currently, there are more than five different points of entry within the University for students seeking these services. Under the new structure, the Counseling Center will serve as the primary entry point for students who have been impacted by sexual violence and who need access to confidential and privileged services.
The services of the Advocacy Center will be integrated and aligned with the Counseling Center, Office of Student Assistance, and Office of Health Promotion. Under federal guidelines, Advocacy Center staff are not able to provide completely confidential and privileged services to students impacted by sexual violence. Under the new structure, the Director and the Sexual Health Coordinator at the Advocacy Center will have positions that enable them to continue providing students the important advocacy and education services they currently offer.
I believe these changes are necessary to improve the overall effectiveness of the Student Affairs services that are provided to students.”
People with knowledge of the situation said that change appeared to be in response to Title IX’s mandatory reporting laws that are supposed to protect students and assault victims. Title IX is a federal law that requires schools to “respond promptly and effectively” to sexual violence and harassment.
Erin Carhart, a recent graduate of the university and former president of Students Advocating Sexual Safety and Empowerment, who started a petition in response to the university’s announcement, said that the Advocacy Center was told last summer there’d be structural changes in how students would seek these kinds of resources because of revisions to Title IX. She explained that Title IX includes a clause stating that any “responsible employee” has to report any information they’re told relating to a sexual assault case, and the only way to keep this information confidential is if an employee has a professional counseling or therapy degree.
This was reportedly the reasoning behind the structural changes to the Advocacy Center eight or so months ago.
“They didn’t have confidentiality privileges because Janet Epstein [the Director of the Advocacy Center] didn’t have a counseling degree,” Carhart said. “But technically it’s up to each college and university to interpret this policy as they see fit.”
Carhart and some other students see the new arrangement as problematic — and have begun taking action. Carhart’s petition on Change.org, which asks Chancellor Syverud to keep the Advocacy Center open, has already received nearly 3,000 signatures and a large number of comments since it was posted around 9 p.m. on Friday.
“Placing sexual assault services under an umbrella of mental health services really doesn’t do the work justice,” Carhart told BuzzFeed. “It doesn’t support survivors, it doesn’t support anyone seeking resources. Decentralizing sexual assault services further stigmatizes the issue; it doesn’t help people in any way possible.”
Rebecca Reed Kantrowitz, Syracuse’s senior vice president for student affairs, said in a statement that the school appreciates how the community has reacted and expressed their opinions about the Advocacy Center.
“These changes are about one thing — serving students better,” she wrote. “The important advocacy and education services provided by the Advocacy Center will continue to be available to students under the new integrated system. With the Counseling Center serving as the primary entry point for students, it will be a completely confidential and privileged place for students impacted by sexual violence, in conformity with Federal government guidelines.”
Janet Epstein, director of the Advocacy Center, and Cory Wallack, director at the Syracuse University Counseling Center, have not yet responded to requests for comment.
Paul Ang, a graduate assistant who works in the Advocacy Center, told BuzzFeed that he sees a parallel to another situation that occurred in 2007, when the university tried to consolidate the Advocacy Center into the Sexual Assault Support Services within the Office of Prevention Services.
“They didn’t connect with students and just made these decisions that had no input from students and essentially just tried to eliminate it,” he said. “This is something that’s happened before, and the history of the Advocacy Center was created out of students’ interest and need and calling for this separate place they could feel safe and supported.”
Both Carhart and Ang also took issue with the location of SU’s Counseling Center — right next to a number of fraternity houses on campus.
“I walk down frat row in the middle of the day and get catcalled,” Carhart said. “Not to mention the other assaults and harassment that students sometimes experience there, it could even trigger some victims and make them less likely to get help.”
The significant online response suggests that some students and survivors would prefer one, centralized location for sexual assault services on campus that are separate from other health and counseling services. “Counseling is different than advocacy,” Ang said. “A lot of survivors aren’t looking for counseling, they’re looking for advocates.”