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2 of 5 agencies lack or have outdated complaint procedures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.

A person wearing laboratory gear pours liquid into vials

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 1. 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 2. 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)
Open
DOE agreed with the recommendation. In its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity (OCRD) has identified promising practices on an ongoing basis in its Title IX compliance review reports. OCRD will develop and publicize a promising practices guide on its website for reference by university grantees. The estimated completion date is June 1, 2020. GAO will review this action once it receives documentation from DOE.
Office of the Secretary 3. 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 4. 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)
Open
DOE agreed with the recommendation. In its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity (OCRD) has developed a draft outline of complaint procedures. OCRD is benchmarking these procedures against NASA and NSF external civil rights complaint procedures. OCRD will finalize and publish Title IX complaint procedures, consistent with the Department of Justice's regulations. The estimated completion date is October 31, 2020.
Department of Agriculture 5. 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 6. 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 this recommendation. According to the department's March 2020 formal comment letter, USDA's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) will add language on its website to make clear recipients of USDA-funded grants are included in the definition of a customer and, as such, may file Title IX complaints through OASCR. Additionally, the requested information will be added to the Frequently Asked Questions section on OASCR' s website.
Office of the Secretary 7. 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 8. 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)
Open
DOE agreed with the recommendation. In its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity (OCRD) will evaluate the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of discrimination, including sexual harassment, outside of the Title IX complaint process described in DOE's Title IX regulations, as well as communicating this option to individuals on DOE funded grants. The estimated completion date is December 31, 2020.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration 9. 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 10. 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 this recommendation. According to the department's March 2020 formal comment letter, USDA is to direct the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) to assess the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of sex discrimination (including sexual harassment) and including language in agency-funded grants on the option to notify the agency of harassment issues outside of the Title IX complaint process. The Office of the Mission Area Liaison within OASCR will assess the feasibility of creating a tracking system to capture inquiries and concerns outside of the Title IX complaint process. 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, according to USDA's formal comment letter.
Office of the Secretary 11. 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 12. 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 its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity will conduct research into best practices for harassment prevention efforts for university grantees and benchmark with other federal agencies. The estimated completion date for establishment of goals is January 31, 2021 and the estimated completion date for establishment of an overall plan is August 31, 2021.
Office of the Secretary 13. 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 14. 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)
Open
NASA agreed with the recommendation. According to the agency's February 2020 formal comment letter, NASA accepts its responsibility to establish policies and communication mechanisms to help university grantees to prevent sexual harassment, and the agency is committed to ongoing monitoring and evaluation of these efforts. At the same time, NASA judges that the most effective way to discharge these responsibilities is to adopt the approach now being developed by the National Science and Technology Council. NASA will establish goals, plans, and methods pursuant to this recommendation by adopting the policies and approaches developed through the interagency process. The estimated completion is to be determined based on timelines and milestones established by the Office of Science and Technology Policy's Safe and Inclusive Research Environments Subcommittee Subcommittee.
National Science Foundation 15. 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. According to the agency's February 2020 formal comment letter, NSF is embarking on an assessment process to improve its policies and practices continually in order to achieve the goal of safe and inclusive research environments.
Department of Agriculture 16. 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 this recommendation. According to the department's March 2020 formal comment letter, USDA will consider developing language to include in university grantees' terms and conditions regarding allegations of sexual harassment. Additionally, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) will reach out to other agencies within the Title IX Quarterly Working Group to assess best practices for monitoring and evaluating sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms. Finally, USDA will increase its communication with university grantees and increase oversight through compliance reviews.
Office of the Assistant Attorney General for Administration 17. 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)
Open
DOJ generally agreed with the recommendation. According to the department's February 2020 formal comment letter, the Civil Rights Division (CRT) is prepared to delineate agencies' roles and responsibilities within the Quarterly Title IX STEM Discussion Group and is willing to develop an enhanced process for evaluating, monitoring, and reporting on the group's collaborations in enforcing Title IX that is achievable within DOJ's current resource allocation, or if more resources become available.

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