On Nov. 12, President Paula Johnson announced that Wellesley would be taking on a new coordinator for Title IX and 504 coordinator, Kate Upatham. Upatham will now be responsible for dealing with Title IX disputes involving Wellesley students, as well as tracking college procedures relating to persons with disabilities.
Upatham will be replacing Janet Faulkner, who served as interim director of nondiscrimination initiatives and Title IX/504 Coordinator over the past year. Faulkner will be returning to private law practice. “Kate comes to the College with a depth of relevant experience as a civil rights attorney with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and as an outside lawyer representing higher education institutions,” Johnson said in her email. “She has extensive experience serving as an independent investigator of Title IX and employment cases.”
Upatham herself is excited to bring her years of legal work to Wellesley, listing some of her achievements in an email to the Wellesley News. “I became a lawyer because I was interested in making the lives of others better and ensuring that people are treated fairly,” she wrote. Upatham went on to list her employment as a civil rights attorney with the U.S. Department of Education and Office for Civil Rights in Boston, and work with a law firm that specializes in assisting schools in civil rights laws compliance. “I’m excited to bring this experience to Wellesley.”
One notable case in which Upatham was involved shortly before coming to Wellesley was of a Smith College custodial employee who called the police on a Black student who was eating lunch and relaxing in a residence hall living room in August 2018. Oumou Kanote, the student in question, told CBS News that the police told her the employee had called reporting a “suspicious black man.” Upatham was part of the team of lawyers from outside Smith who investigated the incident in October of that year, and, according to a report in Inside Higher Ed, “did not find sufficient evidence that the student’s race or color motivated the phone call” and concluded that “the caller provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for calling the campus police on the day of the incident.”
Upatham declined to comment on her role in making this report, but noted that she encourages students to feel comfortable reporting discrimination concerns to her office. “Some people might be reluctant to disclose concerns of discrimination because they are afraid that a response would not be private, or they are afraid that the response will mean a full investigation regardless of what they want,” Upatham said. “That is not the case. I take privacy seriously and will only share information with individuals who need to know about the concerns raised so that Wellesley can appropriately respond.”
Wellesley hired its first full-time Title IX coordinator in 2016, after a report on sexual misconduct on campus highlighted several student concerns about how students who are victims of sexual assault and harrasment might seek safety and justice.
Often, although not exclusively, the cases that Wellesley Title IX coordinators deal with involve parties from multiple colleges and universities. When asked how she would navigate that aspect of working on Title IX/504 disputes here, Upatham said, “The discrimination or harassment people experience based on protected status are generally the same regardless of the school someone attends.” She also noted, however, that as a historically-women’s college Wellesley does face some more specific issues. “As an institution historically dedicated to serving women, Wellesley College has a longer history of being alert to sexual harassment which most often affects women, and people whose gender identities and sexual identities are less common. While Wellesley students may experience lower rates of sexual harassment and assault than students at other institutions, it still happens and work still needs to be done to address these problems.” Upatham also expressed a willingness to work with other schools’ Title IX coordinating departments, many of which are significantly larger than Wellesley’s. Harvard, for example, maintains a network of over 50 Title IX coordinators to Wellesley’s single coordinator. MIT’s Title IX coordinating department employs 17 people.
Upatham notes that matters that cross campuses often also cross Title IX departments. “When an assault has happened on a different college campus, I can help our students report to that other college campus if they wish to do so,” she said. “If they do, I can coordinate with that school’s Title IX Coordinator to help provide information our student might have for an investigation, and to put protections in place for our student if they plan to return to that campus.” This is particularly relevant regarding schools such as MIT, where a large number of Wellesley students take classes and participate in extracurricular activities each semester. Conversations on sexual discrimination and harrassment have been on the increase at MIT in recent weeks, as multiple professors face allegations of connection to rapist Jeffrey Epstein. According to the Association of American Universities (AAU) Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct, among those involved in harassing behaviors at MIT, 18.1 percent are faculty members or instructors, as opposed to a national average of 9.6 percent. A recent community forum on sexual misconduct brought many of these student concerns to administrators’ attention.
Aside from working on Title IX cases both at Wellesley and where Wellesley students are involved in other institutions, Upatham says she is particularly excited for the other aspect of her role–that of working on improving services for disabled students as 504 coordinator.
“As a historical institution, many of Wellesley’s buildings were designed before our current accessibility standards and I was pleased to learn that Wellesley is working to make its facilities more physically accessible,” Upatham said, and suggested that students who are concerned about discrimination based not only on disability but on any legally-protected identity bring those concerns to her. “If students or other members of the Wellesley community believe that discrimination has occurred based on race, color, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, religion, or any other protected status (i.e., genetic information, pregnancy, veterans’ status, membership in uniformed services), they are encouraged to raise that to the attention of my office.”