It’s Thanksgiving week, and Ron Wilson is thinking about his family.
Wilson, who was hired as the University of Arizona’s Title IX director Oct. 29, spent 16 years of his life in a foster home alongside as many as 20 other kids. Wilson says he has hundreds of siblings across the country and grew up with children from every racial and ethnic background possible.
The experience, he said, taught him empathy at a very early age. Wilson knew when he was young that he was meant to help people who lacked resources or the ability to help themselves. He set off on that path as a teenager, mentoring others and giving back to the community.
After graduating from law school, Wilson spent several years working in the Pima County Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor and more than a decade as Presiding Judge of South Tucson before moving back East to work at Edinboro University. He spent the last four years there working on Title IX policies. Wilson says that its his upbringing and passion for helping others that makes him a perfect fit for the Title IX director position, a job he says he’s spent his whole life preparing for.
The UA is currently defending itself in three separate lawsuits filed by students who say the school failed to protect them from abuse by two men currently imprisoned for aggravated assault. Former running back Orlando Bradford was found guilty of choking two ex-girlfriends, months after a third woman told campus police he had been abusing her. Former assistant track and field coach Craig Carter was sentenced to five years in prison after a jury found that he choked a student-athlete when she tried to end their sexual relationship. Recent discovery in one of the Bradford lawsuits revealed that 15 UA student-athletes were the subject of Title IX complaints over a six-year period that ended in December. Title IX is a federal gender equity law designed to protect students from sexual misconduct and dating violence.
The Star sat down with Wilson on Tuesday to talk about where he came from and where he sees the UA’s Title IX program going under his leadership. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did your childhood prepare you for a career in social justice and advocacy?
A: “All of (my siblings) were either abused or neglected or had some type of physical handicap. I’ve had siblings from every ethnic and racial background that you can think of. At one point, I was the only African-American child, but when I aged out, I believe that almost half the population was African-American. I remember seeing a significant shift in the demographics of my siblings in the mid-’80s, when the crack epidemic hit the inner cities. I attribute it to the war on drugs and the crime rate and the incarceration rate, and how crack cocaine impacts entire families and communities. At a very early age, I began to develop compassion and a passion and empathy for people who are marginalized, people who are victims, people who are downtrodden, regardless of your background or race or ethnicity or gender or gender identity. These were my siblings who I loved and cared about. I began to realize at a very early age that I wanted to be an advocate in some capacity. I wanted to be a judge or an attorney. At some point, I even thought about being a priest. I wanted to help and use my God-given talents to give back to the community in a way that I felt I could make a difference.”
What do you consider some of the highlights of your legal career?
A: “I went to Northeastern (University) for law school and my focus was on constitutional law and constitutional rights. While in school, I did a lot of work with gang culture and toxic masculinity, and how does the gang culture and enterprise affect communities? What attracts people to that environment and how that environment is sustained and replicated in certain communities and not others. I wrote a couple papers on urban violence and urban problems, with a focus on addressing the root causes of deviant behavior and what causes people to make poor decisions. The concept pretty much was that criminal behavior at a certain level is a symptom of problems or issues that are going on in a person’s life. Their behavior is simply a reflection. In 1999, I moved to Tucson to work with Barbara LaWall in the Pima County Attorney’s Office community outreach and community prosecution unit. We did a lot of work with 88-CRIME and victim advocacy, and through that collaboration and partnership I learned a lot more about how to apply that problem-solving approach to concepts of restorative justice. It was an education working with (Victims Services) on a daily basis around issues of trauma and trauma protocols, secondary trauma and what we need to do to ensure that victim’s rights are being protected and they have access to all the resources they need. The experience can be so traumatic that often times it can be overwhelming and become paralyzing. You can have resources, but if people don’t know how to access the, they might as well not be there. Connecting people and building those bridges are extremely important; I’d argue it’s as important as making sure the resources exist. In 2002, I was approached by the Mayor and Council of South Tucson and asked if I wanted to be the Presiding Judge. I had to think about it, but my entire life I think has been in preparation for what I was doing and what I’m doing now.”
What were some of your job duties at Edinboro University?
A: “I was at Edinboro for the past four years writing policy — not just for Title IX, but for other Civil Rights-related misconduct — so that all marginalized populations would have representation. I reviewed protocols and procedures for the dean of students, provosts, disability resources center and for the president. I worked with campus life, Greek life, ROTC (and) residence life and served on the president’s cabinet as the chief diversity officer for the university, as well as its open records officer, freedom of information officer, ombudsman at one point, and I had a branch campus with about 400 students and about 40 faculty. It was an amazing experience and great opportunity. In my capacity at Edinboro, I pretty much touched every area you can think of when it comes to Civil Rights, diversity, equity and inclusion.”
What have you done during your first three weeks at the UA?
A: “I’ve been on a listening tour for the most part, trying to meet the very constituency groups and stakeholders. I’ve been talking to the resident advisors, investigators, campus directors, and others, to try to get an idea of what are some of the concerns they have and what role they envision me playing, what are some solutions and ideas they have that they’d like me to consider and review. I’ve been reading the university’s policies and procedures, looking at the university’s protocols and processes. I probably have another week or two to gather everything, from the training that we use to the website and how its designed and how accessible information is to our constituencies. The university under the president’s leadership is in an excellent position to adopt best practices and become a national model for how you can do it right. I think that national model can be sustained and replicated. It kind of goes all the way back to who I am and why I do this work, so I’m very excited for this opportunity. It’s part of this mission I’ve been on for the last 50 years in finding young people to mentor and pass the torch or baton, or even faculty. We have a responsibility to make sure that the learning environment and work environment is safe and that any hostility or anything that may be considered toxic is addressed through prevention, education and awareness programs, and meet people where they’re at. Not just having those available online, but face-to-face or through different (learning) opportunities.”
What kind of actions do universities need to take to improve Title IX protection for students?
A: “Getting information to the students is extremely important. The educational awareness and the training is critical because if the students don’t know what their rights are, what behaviors are prohibited and what conduct is prohibited, then they’ll often engage in the type of behavior they see in music videos or hear in songs or see on TV. Some of these young people come from homes where there is not a positive role model in there lives to teach them values, boundaries, discipline, self-control or respect for themselves or others. That is often times the root of the problem. The training, awareness and prevention, if done properly, doesn’t just tell people what they can’t do, but it empowers them and gives them the skill sets they need to make healthy decisions. I think universities across the county can do more when it comes to making sure our population of learners is actually receiving and listening and their behavior is changing as a result of the education, prevention and awareness. It’s not just one module, one size fits all. We learn differently, so how do we incorporate and meet people where they’re at? It’s not just one form of education, but we need to use a variety of mechanisms to get the message across.
“The other thing we need to do better is engage the student population. At a lot of universities, Title IX is top-down. Students aren’t involved in the decision-making process. One of the things I did at Edinboro was create a student advisory equity committee so students would have the opportunity to come talk to me about what they wanted to see, what worked and didn’t work and provide feedback and criticism. I think other campuses need Title IX coordinators who are approachable, accessible and not intimidating, who understand Civil Rights and who understand that this is an issue that transcends what direction does or does not come out of Washington D.C. This is an issue that impacts our community, our loved ones, our friends, our teammates and our sons and daughters. This is very personal to us and it’s not about checking off a box saying ‘are we or are we not complying.’ It’s about creating an environment and community where everyone understands sexual assault, misconduct and discrimination are unacceptable. We’re going to do our due diligence to reduce with the goal of eliminating (sexual misconduct) and we’re going to provide all the resources we can get our hands on.
How do you feel about the changes proposed by the secretary of education last week to the Title IX regulations handed down to universities?
A: “I’m still processing. It’s a lot to absorb, in addition to all the other information I’m gathering. It’s a 148-page document so I’ve not formulated an opinion yet. What I will be doing is convening a meeting of various stakeholders and gathering input from the investigators, the advisors and advocates, students and anyone involved in or who has been educated on Title IX. I’ll be presenting those comments and observations to a senior leadership team, because I think it’s important that the president not just have my perspective or my opinion on the proposed changes, but the various members of our community also have the opportunity to provide input. That puts the university as a community in a position to either act on certain things now, before the changes become adopted, or wait to see what happens, or submit comment through the portal to the secretary of education and say, ‘Hey, this is how we feel as a community.’ I would love to see that model replicated throughout the state, where all of our universities use that format so that the secretary understands the impact that the proposed changes are having, for better or worse, and the current state of Title IX.”
Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!