Leslie T. Annexstein had a front row seat when Title IX, the law whose compliance she now ensures, widened in scope.
In 1999, Verna Williams, Annexstein’s supervisor at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), successfully argued Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education before the US Supreme Court. In the case, Aurelia Davis sued school officials on behalf of her fifth grade daughter, LaShonda, arguing that they were liable for their indifference to and failure to prevent her continued sexual harassment by another student.
Annexstein, then senior counsel for NWLC, was a litigator for the case. In a 5-4 decision, the court held that Title IX of the Federal Education Amendments of 1972 required school boards to respond to student-against-student sexual harassment.
“I was very steeped in Title IX litigation at a time when higher education was just starting to get involved in looking at it and how it impacts their campuses,” Annexstein says. “I was on the outside pushing for schools to look at this, to develop systems, to develop responses when incidents occur.
“Now, being in a position where I’m able to craft what those responses should look like and help educate the community on the responsibility that we all share in creating a safe and welcoming environment, it’s just a natural progression.”
She joined AU in September to lead the new Office of Equity and Title IX as its assistant vice president. The office oversees AU’s efforts to prevent and respond to discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault. Through complaint resolution, training, and awareness campaigns, the office will serve the AU community and further the university’s commitment to combat structural racism, eliminate gender-based violence, and remove barriers to participation and access.
Annexstein, who comes to AU from Howard University, has spent more than two decades in civil rights enforcement, with the last few focused on Title IX at higher education institutions. She spoke with This Week at AU about her career fighting for others and her vision for the office she now leads. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
What shaped your interest in law?
I became a lawyer because I wanted to help people and improve societal structures that I felt could be better. I have been a civil rights lawyer, a women’s right lawyer, and a poverty lawyer—all in the name of improving systems that impact various populations in our society. We are a country that professes to be a country of equal opportunity for all, and as a lawyer I like to think that I’ve had a part in ensuring that promise is a reality.
Did you know right away that you were going to practice civil rights law?
I think I always knew that I would work on behalf of individuals and communities that might feel disenfranchised in some way. I felt very fortunate that I got a job in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division right out of law school. I had a fantastic experience there as a young lawyer, learning how to litigate on behalf of the United States.
I wanted to learn other ways to put my legal skills to use that were not just about litigation—but looking more at how to create and implement policies that move the ball forward. How do you impact legislatures? What does it look like on the ground in terms of implementation? I learned a lot about implementation when I worked at the Urban Justice Center and saw how what used to be called safety net programs were implemented in New York City. I saw up-close how those policies worked for individuals getting access to cash assistance, job assistance programs, food stamps, and low-income housing.
I also wanted to apply my skills in higher education, doing what I do now. This work is filled with opportunity, but it’s challenging to figure out, ‘How do you apply this to the community you’re in and have it impact that community in a positive way?’
What do you remember from working on Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education?
What actually opened up the discussion among the Supreme Court justices was a question posed to the attorney representing the board of education about how they might have responded if, instead of it being a sex-based incident, it had been a race-based incident. It was clear that saying, ‘Let’s replace race with sex,’ was making some of the justices and others in the courtroom think about it differently and believe that they would not have accepted that conduct if it had been race-based.
At the time, there also was a concern about schools, including higher education institutions, being responsible for the actions of their students. A lot of the discussion was, ‘How can schools be responsible for these independent actors who come on campus for an educational opportunity?’ To me, the answer is under the law, it’s not about the college or university being responsible for what that individual did. It’s about how that institution responds when something happens.
When an incident occurs, this office wants to have the best possible response that gets to the bottom of what occurred, is fair, looks at all of the facts impartially, and provides appropriate responses and remedies to ensure that everybody is able to continue with their education or continue doing their best possible.
What are your goals for this position and this office?
I think it is critical in this field of Title IX and discrimination that there be transparency about what we’re doing, so that everybody knows where to go and that we have clear processes and procedures for how to make a complaint and what happens next. It’s about responding to individuals in a consistent and transparent way—even the simple things, like acknowledging receipt of a complaint. I’m particularly excited that AU has so many community members working on these issues, from individuals that are talking about restorative justice practices to the whole inclusive excellence agenda.
How does your work shape and support the university’s inclusive excellence plan as it continues to roll out over the next three years?
This office’s primary responsibility is responding to individual complaints. But we also can create the space, ability, and time to go beyond those individual complaints to work with our partners on systems across the university that we’re all trying to ensure are equitable for all of our community members. My goal is to build a foundation that allows us to meet our primary responsibilities while we lend our expertise to creating and bettering the systems that we have at AU.
How important is training?
I always start off trainings by saying, ‘Everybody has rights, and everybody has responsibilities.’ Trainings help disseminate that information and provide us with a common language for discussing the issues. The more we can get out there and educate everybody on what our policies say about conduct and build a common understanding, the better off we are moving forward. Training is a critical part of building that foundation. We’re doing that already through online training that has gone out to everybody [earlier this fall]. I envision that once we’re all back on campus, some training will be in-person, but right now we’ll use Zoom.
What have these first couple months been like as you get the office off the ground, especially since you have had to work remotely due to COVID-19?
Everybody has been so welcoming and open. I have met with a lot of people—faculty, staff, and students—individually, in small groups, and in larger groups. The community has been very generous with me in, sharing their knowledge, time, ideas, and criticisms of what has happened in the past and their hopes moving forward.
We are lucky because with absorption of what was the Title IX office, we already have an investigator [Fariha Quasem] who has been in her role for three years. She helps me understand how things were functioning and where improvements may be needed, and changes will happen because we’re going to be in a centralized office. My hope is to bring some staff in so that we can really start putting some of our internal operating procedures into practice in a way that everyone can feel and see.
People should not forget that this work could not be done by just me and the people in this office. We will set foundations and lead efforts, but it really does take everybody to do this.