Fast Facts

Federal agencies must enforce Title IX—which prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment—at universities receiving federal financial assistance. We looked at 5 agencies funding science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research and found:

4 of 5 agencies received 3 or fewer complaints over the last 5 years

2 of 5 agencies lack or have outdated complaint procedures

None of the 5 agencies have goals and an overall plan to evaluate all prevention efforts

Our recommendations include establishing or updating agency complaint procedures and establishing goals and an overall plan for sexual harassment prevention.

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A person wearing laboratory gear pours liquid into vials

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The five agencies GAO reviewed provided approximately 80 percent of federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research grants since fiscal year 2015. From fiscal year 2015 through 2019, four of the five agencies received few complaints—including sexual harassment—under Title IX from individuals at universities. Inconsistent with federal regulations implementing Title IX, two of the agencies—the Departments of Energy (DOE) and Agriculture (USDA)—lack finalized procedures for complaints and thus cannot ensure they are consistently handling complaints. Sex-discrimination concerns—including sexual harassment—can also be raised by individuals outside of the Title IX complaint process (see table). However, only two agencies—the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—publicly communicate the option to notify them of concerns. The other three—DOE, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and USDA—received no concerns in fiscal year 2019 and may be missing opportunities to obtain information for Title IX oversight.

Number of Title IX Complaints and Sex Discrimination Concerns Received by Agencies

Agency DOE HHS NASA NSF USDA Total

Title IX Complaints,
FY 2015-2019

2

1

3

33

1

40

Sex Discrimination Concerns,
FY 2019a

0

93b

0c

47

0

140

Source: GAO analysis of information for fiscal years (FY) 2015 through 2019 from Department of Energy (DOE); Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); NASA; National Science Foundation (NSF); and Department of Agriculture (USDA) as well as interviews with agency officials. I GAO-20-187

Note: In fiscal years 2018 and 2019, three agencies received the same complaint. GAO counted it as a complaint for all three agencies.

aAgencies receive sex-discrimination concerns—including sexual harassment—outside of the Title IX complaint process.

bHHS's National Institutes of Health receives sex discrimination concerns—information not processed or investigated under Title IX—including sexual harassment concerns.

cOfficials stated that NASA received one concern in FY 2019; however, it did not involve a university.

All five agencies have established grantee sexual harassment prevention efforts beyond those required by Title IX. However, none of the agencies have goals and plans for all of their efforts, and thus they lack clear ways to evaluate how well these efforts are working and to identify any needed improvements. They may also be missing opportunities to coordinate and integrate prevention activities.

Additionally, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reconstituted an interagency discussion group on Title IX in 2016, where all five agencies share information about their activities. However, DOJ has not fully adopted two leading practices for collaboration: agreeing on agency roles and responsibilities and developing mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report collaborative efforts. Officials at one agency said clarifying agencies' roles and responsibilities would improve the group. Adopting leading practices would help enhance and sustain collaboration.

Why GAO Did This Study

Sexual harassment is degrading and illegal. Studies show it has a negative effect on the ability of women to engage in research at the same level as men. Title IX prohibits sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding, and federal agencies are required to enforce the law at universities they fund. In fiscal year 2018, the most recent year for which data were available during GAO's review, U.S. universities were awarded about $27 billion in federal grants for STEM research. GAO was asked to review federal efforts to help prevent sexual harassment at universities that receive such grants.

This report examines, among other things, (1) how selected federal agencies receive, investigate, and resolve Title IX complaints; (2) the extent to which selected agencies have established an overall plan for their sexual harassment prevention efforts for university grantees, including for communicating and evaluating these efforts and (3) the extent to which selected agencies collaborate on efforts to prevent sexual harassment at universities they fund for STEM research. GAO reviewed agencies' relevant regulations and documentation and interviewed agency officials.



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Recommendations

GAO is making 17 recommendations to the five agencies funding STEM research and DOJ, including to finalize and publish complaint procedures, establish goals and an overall plan for prevention efforts, and fully adopt two collaboration leading practices. The agencies agreed with GAO's recommendations and identified actions they plan to take to address them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should direct the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to publicize promising practices for Title IX compliance on its websites for their university grantees. (Recommendation 1)
Open
USDA agreed with the recommendation. In letters drafted in March and December 2020, the department provided a variety of ways in which the department intends to respond to GAO's recommendation-including ensuring promising practices information is posted to websites for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), using annual reviews and training webinars to ensure awareness of Title IX compliance resources and how to access them, and USDA NIFA developing an action plan to strengthen collaboration and Title IX Compliance with its stakeholders as it relates to Sexual Harassment.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of Energy should direct the Director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity to publicize promising practices for Title IX compliance on its websites for their university grantees. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
DOE agreed with the recommendation. In June 2021, DOE's Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, Office of Civil Rights (OCR) reported that it had developed a publication on Title IX Promising Practices and OCR published the document on the OCR Title IX webpage for their university grantees.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should direct the Director for the Office for Civil Rights to publicize a stand-alone list of promising practices for Title IX compliance on its websites for their university grantees. (Recommendation 3)
Closed - Implemented
HHS agreed with the recommendation. According to HHS documentation, as of October 2020, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) produced and posted a stand-alone list of effective practices for Title IX compliance on its Sex-Based Harassment webpage. This list includes a link to OCR's settlement agreement with Michigan State University and, according to agency officials, the agreement serves as a model for specific actions universities should consider taking to prevent sexual harassment. According to officials, after the stand-alone list was completed, OCR distributed it through its civil rights listserv to all Title IX compliance coordinators at National Institutes of Health-funded universities, posted it to its webpage, and added it as a resource in OCR's sex discrimination investigator training materials. The effective practices list serves as a technical assistance and outreach tool for NIH-funded universities.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of Energy should direct the Director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity to finalize and publish Title IX complaint procedures, consistent with DOJ's regulations. (Recommendation 4)
Closed - Implemented
DOE agreed with the recommendation. In June 2021, DOE's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) reported that it had developed a Title IX Complaint Procedures Manual, which it published on November 12, 2020. OCR publicized the manual on its external civil rights "How to File a Complaint of Discrimination" webpage. According to officials, the Manual was also shared and reviewed with the OCR staff responsible for carrying out external civil rights compliance and enforcement functions, including those in the area of Title IX.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should direct the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to finalize and publish revised Title IX complaint procedures. (Recommendation 5)
Open
USDA agreed with the recommendation to finalize and publish Title IX complaint procedures. According to the department's March 2020 formal comment letter, USDA's Departmental Regulation (DR) 4330-002, Nondiscrimination in Program and Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance from USDA, addresses processing Title IX administrative complaints filed with the Department in any program or activity receiving financial assistance from USDA. The Departmental Regulation (DR) 4330-002 was revised in 2019 and is currently in the clearance process for publication. In a letter dated December 2020, the department provided information on several additional efforts-including that USDA's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture will ensure information regarding Title IX complaint procedures is posted on its websites upon approval and publication of the revised DR 4330-002.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should direct the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to clarify on its website that individuals on USDA-funded grants can file Title IX complaints through the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights—including clarifying who is considered "customers." (Recommendation 6)
Open
USDA agreed with the recommendation. In June 2021, USDA's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) and NIFA reported that clarifying language will be posted on both websites in fiscal year 2021 indicating that individuals on USDA-funded grants are included in the definition of a customer, and as a result may file Title IX complaints through the OASCR. The clarifying language will be added to the Frequently Asked Questions section of the OASCR's website. We will update the status of this recommendation when USDA completes this action.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should direct the Director for the Office for Civil Rights to assess the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of sex discrimination—including sexual harassment—and communicating to individuals on agency-funded grants the option to notify the agency of these concerns, outside of the Title IX complaint process. (Recommendation 7)
Closed - Implemented
HHS agreed with the recommendation. In September 2020, OCR and NIH signed a memorandum of understanding to promote information sharing with regard to concerns about sexual harassment in NIH-funded programs. According to HHS officials, as of October 2020, NIH granted HHS's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) access to matters in the NIH Research Misconduct Allegation and Reporting System (RMARS) related to sexual harassment reports received outside the Title IX complaint process at NIH-funded institutions. OCR's access allows retrieval of referrals and files from NIH. OCR may exercise its enforcement discretion to open a compliance review to investigate reports of sexual harassment under Title IX or other civil rights authorities, and if applicable, coordinate with NIH to resolve compliance concerns that also violate grant requirements. Moreover, the NIH Notification Portal provides links for visitors to report concerns about sexual harassment to NIH and also provides links that visitors can use to file complaints of sexual harassment directly with OCR. If NIH receives a report alleging facts that, if taken as true, would violate HHS civil rights authorities, NIH will forward such reports to OCRMail@hhs.gov or to OCR's Complaint Portal. Neither OCR nor NIH portals require complainants to file a complaint with their university before filing with HHS. According to HHS officials, OCR and NIH updated the civil rights compliance section of NIH funding announcements to specifically identify authorities that require recipients of HHS funds to administer their programs in an environment free of sex discrimination and harassment, according to agency documentation and officials. The compliance section also includes several links to OCR and NIH webpages that provide more information on civil rights and NIH program obligations related to sexual harassment, including links that allow filing complaints of sexual harassment directly with OCR or making reports of sexual harassment outside the Title IX university complaint process directly to NIH.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of Energy should direct the Director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity to assess the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of sex discrimination—including sexual harassment—and communicating to individuals on agency-funded grants the option to notify the agency of these concerns, outside of the Title IX complaint process. (Recommendation 8)
Closed - Implemented
DOE agreed with the recommendation. In March and May 2021, officials stated that the department has given due consideration to this recommendation, to include benchmarking with other agencies, and concluded that related to these "concerns" the department will: 1) evaluate each individual concern and determine whether any additional steps should be taken which may include informing the selection of an institution for a compliance review; and 2) will evaluate each individual concern to determine if it is appropriate to share it with the program office that has funded the institution for them to take any action as they see fit.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration The Administrator of NASA should assess the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of sex discrimination—including sexual harassment—and communicating to individuals on agency-funded grants the option to notify the agency of these concerns, outside of the Title IX complaint process. (Recommendation 9)
Closed - Implemented
NASA agreed with the recommendation. NASA benchmarked similarly situated agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, on the feasibility of addressing questions or concerns raised outside of the Title IX complaint process relating to discrimination or harassment, according to officials. Based on this assessment, as of October 2020, NASA added information on reporting discrimination and harassment to its Mission-STEM website. Under "raising a question or concern" on this website, the agency provides a telephone number and email address for beneficiaries of NASA-funded STEM educational or other NASA-funded programs who wish to raise a question or concern relating to discrimination or harassment. Furthermore, the agency describes the process once a concern or question is received: (1) NASA will inform the individual of the right to file a complaint using the process outlined on the above section of the Web site, (2) If the individual does not wish to file a complaint, NASA will assess the concern to determine what, if any, additional steps may be taken. For example, NASA can use information received from beneficiaries in assessing civil rights compliance of grant recipient institutions, and (3) Information provided by beneficiaries raising questions or concerns will be maintained in accordance with the Privacy Act of 1974. NASA will store the information regarding concerns in a secure shared drive in a database that will also be used to assist in selecting recipient institutions for compliance review activity-including comparing information from concerns with the NASA database showing complaint activity.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should direct the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to assess the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of sex discrimination—including sexual harassment—and communicating to individuals on agency-funded grants the option to notify the agency of these concerns, outside of the Title IX complaint process. (Recommendation 10)
Open
USDA agreed with the recommendation. In June 2021, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights reported that it plans to take three actions to address this recommendation: (1) in fiscal year 2021, assess the feasibility of creating a tracking system within the Equal Employment Opportunity and Civil Rights Programs database to capture inquiries and concerns outside of the Title IX complaint process which, if feasible, the system will serve as a risk assessment tool to identify issues, potential violations, trends, risks, and areas prime for focused compliance review; (2) collaborate with NIFA and create a Sex Discrimination and Sexual Harassment Pamphlet for Title IX Coordinators detailing the complaint and compliance review processes and provide the pamphlet to Title IX Coordinators at universities for display/distribution to individuals for informational purposes; and (3) develop a Title IX "And Justice for All Poster" which will be posted in the Title IX Coordinator's offices. We will update the status of this recommendation when USDA confirms that they have completed these actions.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should direct the Director for the Office for Civil Rights and the Director of NIH to develop and implement formal procedures for sharing relevant information about Title IX (compliance reviews, violations, and complaints) and sex discrimination concerns, including sexual harassment. For example, HHS components should internally share information regarding findings of Title IX violations, concerns of sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, and Title IX compliance review reports. (Recommendation 11)
Closed - Implemented
HHS agreed with the recommendation. HHS's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and NIH signed a memorandum of understanding in September 2020 to formally establish increased information sharing between agencies to ensure relevant information about Title IX enforcement and sexual harassment concerns are appropriately addressed in NIH-funded programs. In the context of Title IX enforcement, OCR and NIH share information about grantees that is relevant to establish civil rights jurisdiction, and to set the scope for investigations and compliance reviews of universities that receive NIH funds, according to HHS officials. Finally, OCR also posts its findings on Title IX cases on its website, which is accessible to the public, and issues announcements of Title IX agreements through its civil rights listserv. According to agency officials, NIH's Office of Extramural Research (OER) and many external stakeholders receive OCR's civil rights listserv announcements. OCR and OER will continue to coordinate information sharing to ensure HHS is aware of and takes steps to protect against sexual harassment in NIH funded universities.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of Energy should establish goals and an overall plan to assess all of the agency's sexual harassment prevention efforts for their university grantees, including methods to regularly monitor and evaluate its sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms (e.g. Title IX or sex discrimination websites). (Recommendation 12)
Open
DOE agreed with the recommendation. In March and May 2021, DOE officials stated that the department has identified four specific goals to improve sexual harassment prevention efforts at grantee institutions. The four goals are as follows: 1) assess and improve the the assurance process for federal financial assistance recipients; 2) develop Title IX technical assistance for DOE employees and federal financial assistance recipients; 3) issue a Title IX policy statement; and 4) assess communication efforts and develop a plan to improve our communication to educational institutions on the requirements of Title IX. According to the department, DOE's project plan to complete the four goals will be finalized in August 2021.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should establish goals and an overall plan to assess all of the agency's sexual harassment prevention efforts for their university grantees, including methods to regularly monitor and evaluate its sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms (e.g. Title IX or sex discrimination websites). (Recommendation 13)
Open
HHS agreed with the recommendation. In its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that NIH has created goals for all NIH grantee sexual harassment prevention efforts, as noted in GAO's report. NIH will develop a plan to assess progress towards achieving those goals, including methods to regularly monitor and evaluate policies and communication methods. To the extent Title IX enforcement and outreach efforts may prevent sexual harassment, the Office for Civil Rights will develop a plan for leveraging enforcement efforts and outreach communications to help HHS grantees implement prevention efforts. As of October 2020, HHS-NIH and HHS's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) developed and implemented an overall plan to: (1) assess HHS efforts to promote sexual harassment prevention efforts at NIH-funded universities, and (2) assess methods to regularly monitor and evaluate the grant and enforcement policies and communication mechanisms employed by NIH and OCR under their respective civil rights and grant authorities to promote the prevention of sexual harassment at NIH-funded universities.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration The Administrator of NASA should establish goals and an overall plan to assess all of the agency's sexual harassment prevention efforts for their university grantees, including methods to regularly monitor and evaluate its sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms (e.g. Title IX or sex discrimination websites). (Recommendation 14)
Closed - Implemented
NASA agreed with the recommendation. In April 2021, NASA developed an action plan for assessing the agency's harassment prevention efforts among NASA grant recipient research institutions (grantees). According to the agency, the plan provides a blueprint that among other things outlines specific, meaningful, and sustained strategies, actions, and performance measurements, such as (1) delivering clear and precise requirements and recommendations for compliance based on each civil rights compliance review, (2) organizing conferences and events to provide training and share promising practices, (3) outlining agency policies and procedures online, and (4) soliciting open and honest feedback from grantees and stakeholders while internally monitoring agency progress. NASA also developed metrics to evaluate and report performance on agency actions: (1) number of statutorily required or additional external (grantee) civil rights compliance reviews, (2) percentage of corrective actions or recommendations implemented by grantees, (3) civil rights assurance form reporting, and (4) quality assessment of the civil rights compliance review process. As of June 2021, NASA stated that as a member of the Office of Science and Technology Policy's Safe and Inclusive Research Environments (SIRE) Subcommittee, the agency continues to be a full participant along with other member agencies in the development of a Federally-coordinated action plan (FCAP). SIRE is developing this plan to present a Government-wide approach to addressing harassment in the research environment, including a design for collecting evidence on effective strategies that will allow the Government to better track the issue, and ensure consistency in future Federal agency and grantee actions. The FCAP focuses on coordinated Federal agency action as well as grantee civil rights requirements and best practices, for example, institutional anti-harassment programs modelled on those required for Federal agencies by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
National Science Foundation The Director of NSF should establish goals and an overall plan to assess all of the agency's sexual harassment prevention efforts for their university grantees, including methods to regularly monitor and evaluate its sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms (e.g. Title IX or sex discrimination websites). (Recommendation 15)
Open
NSF agreed with the recommendation. As of June 2021, according to NSF, the agency developed an initial plan to evaluate its anti-harassment policies, including sexual harassment, and communication mechanisms. This initial plan led to the development of two questions and study plans included in the NSF interim learning agenda submitted to the Office of Management and Budget in September 2020. Both studies--one focused on the terms and conditions and the other on the conference policy--are ongoing and expected to be completed by September 2021. Findings will be used to define the next phases in the evaluation of NSF anti-sexual harassment efforts.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should establish goals and an overall plan to assess all of the agency's sexual harassment prevention efforts for their university grantees, including methods to regularly monitor and evaluate its sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms (e.g. Title IX or sex discrimination websites). (Recommendation 16)
Open
USDA agreed with the recommendation. In June 2021, USDA stated that the Office of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights plans to take three actions: (1) develop language to include in university grantees' terms and conditions regarding allegations of sexual harassment to ensure uniformity of best practices consistent with other agencies that were a part of the audit; (2) increase the department's communication with university grantees and oversight through compliance reviews as well as collaborating with NIFA to conduct two Title IX compliance reviews jointly; and (3) seek assistance from other federal agencies within the Title IX Quarterly Working Group on best practices for monitoring and evaluating sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms. We will update the status of this recommendation when USDA completes these actions.
Office of the Assistant Attorney General for Administration In consultation with DOE, HHS, NASA, NSF, and USDA, the Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice should direct the responsible Civil Rights Division sections to fully adopt two federal interagency leading practices—agree on agency's roles and responsibilities and develop mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report results of collaborative efforts, for its Quarterly Title IX STEM discussion group. (Recommendation 17)
Closed - Implemented
DOJ generally agreed with the recommendation. As of April 2021, DOJ's Civil Rights Division (CRT) developed and documented agencies' roles and responsibilities within the Quarterly Title IX STEM Discussion Group including a process for monitoring, and reporting on the group's collaborations in enforcing Title IX. According to the department's documentation, DOJ-CRT will continue quarterly group meetings; take attendance; set aside time during each quarterly meeting for questions and discussion; and provide feedback on agencies' collaborative Title IX efforts. DOJ will also provide a digital interagency platform for agencies to share information on upcoming Title IX compliance reviews and post agencies' past reviews and public compliance reports. Finally, DOJ-CRT will provide separate smaller group discussions or one-on-one assistance to agencies on Title IX compliance reviews and investigations, as time and resources permit.

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