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Darci Heroy

 Cort and Darci Heroy with daughter Alexandra
Darci and Cort Heroy with daughter Alexandra

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

- Text from Title IX

Passed into law in 1972, the Title IX portion of the Education Amendments Act of 1972—now known as the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act—is straightforward: if you receive Federal funding to provide education services, you are legally required to treat all students and employees equally, regardless of sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, pregnancy, or parenting.

Straightforward… in theory anyway, if not always in practice.

Legally, Title IX can be a minefield, where federal and state laws can be at odds with each other, and where best intentions can sometimes cause problems for survivors and institutions alike. To help navigate these issues (and many, many more), the University of Oregon has hired Darci Heroy, JD ’09, to serve as associate vice president and Title IX coordinator, tasking her with improving the way the UO handles issues related to gender-based discrimination and sexual assault.

Heroy’s interest in combating injustice and aiding those less fortunate began at a young age—as a fifth grader growing up in Ashland, in fact.

“I remember being really interested in World War 2 and literature from that period, apartheid in South Africa and the civil rights movement there, the civil rights movement in the US in the 60s, and what happened with the Native Americans in the US,” she said. “From early on I was reading about these things, and I’m not sure what drew me to that particularly, if it was the plight of those who were oppressed or the sense of injustice or unfairness. I’ve always been interested in that; everything I did intersected with that.”

Heroy earned a bachelor’s degree from Portland State University and a master’s degree from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, while also volunteering as a sexual assault survivor advocate—in addition to being a third-degree black belt with more than twenty years’ experience in martial arts who has trained survivors—doing international policy work and study in Europe and Ghana, and studying sub-Saharan African societal norms and justice, conflict intervention strategies, and civil conflicts. She returned to Oregon to earn her juris doctor from the UO, then clerked with a labor law firm before becoming a civil rights investigator with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry’s (BOLI) civil rights division. After BOLI, she worked as a labor and employment attorney and later a Title IX investigator.

Heroy initially turned down repeated overtures from the UO, as she was self-employed with a young daughter and did not want to return to working for someone else. She relented enough however to accept the position on an interim basis while the search for a permanent coordinator continued, then found she did not want to leave.

“I’ve invested so much in the projects we have going and the changes that we’re making,” said Heroy. “It’s going in such a positive direction that I really want to see those through.”

As Title IX coordinator, Heroy oversees a vast portfolio at the UO—it’s considerably more involved than simply making sure there are an equitable number of male and female student-athletes representing the Ducks. She oversees all programs or processes that may involve gender or sex equity issues, including sexual assault prevention programs; crisis and risk management responses; pay disparity issues (in partnership with the UO’s Office of Human Resources); communication between the UO and law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, the city, Eugene Police Department, the University of Oregon Police Department, and Sexual Assault Support Services; and all related investigators and investigations.

Among the projects she is currently overseeing are a new responsible employee policy, new federal guidance on equity for transgender students, new standard operating procedures for handling sexual assault cases, support for UO students studying at other UO campuses or abroad, clearer employee reporting guidelines, and a centralized Title IX website that will provide all relevant information in one location.

With clearer guidelines and more transparency throughout the entire process, the goal is to provide as much support as possible to students, faculty, staff, and the administration whenever an issue arises. Sometimes, the laws in place can create issues—for example, the Clery Act requires universities provide timely warnings to students, even if the warnings themselves are harmful or potentially harmful to the survivors who report assaults—but ultimately Heroy and the UO are working to ensure the process is as fair as possible to all involved.

That said, even doing things the right way and following the letter of the law can appear confusing to the public. In instances where there are criminal investigations against students, a police department uses the ‘beyond the reasonable doubt’ burden of proof—where investigators have to be almost certain a crime has been committed before a district attorney will agree to go to trial—while a university uses the ‘preponderance’ burden of proof, where an institution only has to be more than 50 percent convinced in order to take action against a student.

“That’s one of the difficult concepts for folks to understand,” Heroy said. “They’re very different standards, and that’s going to influence whether or not an investigation is going forward in the criminal process.”

Another potentially confusing issue is the number of sexual assaults reported by university students. Contrary to what the public may want from the university, Heroy hopes the number increases, not decreases.

Why?

Because an increase doesn’t necessarily mean more assaults are occurring—it means more students feel comfortable reporting them.

“We’ve seen an incredible increase in the number of reports, and a lot of that is attributable to the prevention education that we’re doing; giving students a real language for this and understanding what types of behaviors are potentially appropriate or inappropriate, and feeling more comfortable coming forward,” said Heroy. “It will be really interesting to publish our numbers. There will be such a significant increase, and an increase in reports is a positive thing. What we can do in supporting these students in staying in school and being successful after they’ve experienced any type of harassment or discrimination is really incredible.”

No matter what issue, Heroy is committed to ensuring the UO follows all legal guidelines while at the same time providing students as much assistance as possible—especially in cases of sexual assault, where the public’s and media’s desire for information conflicts with the university’s desire to respect a survivor’s request for privacy.

“I understand on the one hand that people are very passionate about these topics and want to know a lot, and they may think that the institution is hiding things, and as much as we say we’re not people don’t believe that because of the national narrative. We’re trying to balance that with the people who are involved—the last thing they want is to have this become public. It’s one of the more traumatic experiences of their lives, and they don’t want to be at the center of attention for that. It’s hard juggling those sometimes.”

Between ensuring employees are being treated fairly, helping the university follow the myriad laws associated with Title IX, and guaranteeing sexual assault survivors receive the assistance they need, there is precious little quiet time for Heroy in her Johnson Hall office. That comes with the territory though when you are protecting 24,000 students while providing guidance to a major university’s numerous departments and employees, a task she has been preparing for since her days growing up in Ashland.

“We have amazing people working all over this institution, and I really care about them and I care about the institution,” said Heroy. “I’m an alumna and I care about higher education; I value it and think it serves a sacred function in our society.”

- by assistant director of marketing and communications Damian Foley