10 Questions With New Title IX Coordinator Paul Apicella
Paul Apicella was appointed Penn State’s first Title IX Coordinator last week, an office that was created as one of the 18 recommendations introduced by the sexual assault and sexual harassment task force.
In his new position, Apicella will be in charge of the new Title IX office and will work to spearhead initiatives to prevent sexual assault and harassment, raise awareness of the issue, and educate students, faculty, and staff. Likewise, his position will ensure Penn State meets all the legal requirements that go along with Title IX.
Together with the other members of the task force, he will also play a role in implementing the rest of the recommendations at all Penn State campuses. We sat down with Apicella to talk about how he came to Penn State and what he hopes to accomplish as Title IX Coordinator.
Onward State: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to Penn State.
Paul Apicella: My name is Paul Apicella, and I am the newly-appointed Title IX Coordinator at Penn State. I am a married father of three beautiful (and sometimes civilized) young children, and being a father is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I could ever imagine. I grew up outside of Reading, Pennsylvania, and joined the United States Navy shortly after graduating high school, serving from 2000 to 2005. I then went back to school and became an attorney before leaving private practice and becoming involved in Title IX work in the higher education setting. I heard that Penn State was searching for a new Title IX Coordinator last year, and I quickly became very intrigued. I grew up in Nittany Lion country, so I understood what a proud and vibrant community exists around the university, and I also had an idea that stewarding the Title IX program here at Penn State represented a uniquely rewarding opportunity. After speaking to everyone involved in the search process, it was clear to me that this was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I was fortunate enough to have been selected for the position, and so here I am, ready to hit the ground running.
OS: Previously, you’ve held similar positions at Drexel University. How has your past experience prepared you for this position and how do you plan to bring this experience to Penn State?
PA: I am really grateful for my time at Drexel because it gave me the chance to help build and implement a strong program from the ground up. I was the first person hired at Drexel to focus solely on issues of sexual and gender-based violence and misconduct, so with respect to our Title IX program, I had to learn how to do it all. I was responsible for everything from receiving and processing initial reports of incidents that violated our policy, to conducting investigations and guiding individual cases through our student conduct process. I also spent a lot of time developing training and education programs for students, faculty, and staff in the various departments and offices around the university, as well as having a very active role in policy development. I learned something from every case I handled and every community member with whom I worked. I think that I developed a very comprehensive and practical knowledge base that I am hoping will serve me well during my time here at Penn State.
OS: What are some of the duties your position entails?
PA: As the Title IX Coordinator, I am responsible for guiding and overseeing the university’s efforts related to Title IX. Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex- or gender-based discrimination in institutions of higher education. Traditionally, a lot of people have associated Title IX with equity issues in the context of intercollegiate athletics, but it’s really much broader than that. Title IX also applies, for example, to environmental issues created by incidents or patterns of sexual violence that may occur on a college campus. For that reason, my duties include overseeing the university’s response to all reports of potential sex- or gender-based harassment or misconduct. I am also largely responsible for ensuring that we are identifying and addressing any systemic patterns that may arise in reviewing complaints, including providing training and education programming so that we can address cultural issues and promote an environment that is healthy and inclusive for all members of our community.
OS: While it is important to protect and represent the university, many of those affected by the Task Force’s recommendations will be students. How do you plan to represent the student body?
PA: It is my firm belief that I cannot “protect” or “represent” the university if I am not making sure that we are first taking care of our students. In order to do that, however, we have to first meet students where they are, meaning that we have to understand what is happening in the student body from the student perspective, grasp the issues that students are facing both on- and off-campus, and open the avenues of communication so that students understand that we have a genuine and steadfast desire to address issues (both individual and environmental) whenever they occur. I look forward to inviting the student body to take part in a dialogue regarding all of these issues, and I am committed to being proactive in addressing concerns whenever they are raised.
OS: You are the first person to hold the position of Title IX Coordinator at Penn State, which puts you in a unique position to affect change. What do you hope to achieve with your new position?
PA: The opportunity to effect positive change is precisely what draws me to Title IX work in general, it is exactly what motivated me to seek out this opportunity at Penn State in particular. At the end of the day, my job is to make things better. To me, there are few things that are more rewarding than interacting with students in a way that helps them to live healthier, happier lives. Sometimes, that means making sure we are providing the kinds of resources and support services that allow people who may be in the middle of a very difficult period in their life to heal and continue their education so their plans for the future don’t get derailed. Other times, it means promoting educational programs that provoke thought and help broader cultural issues. My ultimate goal is to promote cultural change, so that we can start to break the cycles of abuse and violence and avoid incidents before they occur.
OS: The Task Force on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment had 17 other recommendations besides your position, all of which were accepted. Which of these recommendations are you most interested in working on or implementing?
PA: Well first I have to acknowledge that the Task Force did a fantastic job of putting together a very comprehensive and perceptive set of recommendations. It is important to note that an effective Title IX program is heavily dependent on cooperation and coordination across a wide range of issues, and every single aspect of the program really has to be in synch in order for things to function well. If you think of it like a car engine, we need all of the pistons firing at the right time in order to get anywhere. For that reason, I think I have to give what seems like an “easy” answer and say that I look at every recommendation in the Task Force report as essential to what I want to do as Title IX Coordinator. Of course, a big part of what I will have to do is prioritizing which recommendations we will need to focus on first, but those priorities won’t necessarily reflect how much “more” or “less important” any individual recommendation is.
OS: Sexual assault and harassment on college campuses is currently a huge issue in universities across the country. How will your position help the Task Force make Penn State a leader in preventing sexual assault?
PA: Because there are so many moving parts and nuances involved in administering a Title IX program at an institution as large and complicated as Penn State, it is essential to have strong leadership in place to guide our efforts. It was very clear to me even before I came on board here that there are so many people around the university who are dedicated to making our program and culture the best it can be. I look forward to finding ways to harness and focus all of that positive energy so we can become a model to which other school will aspire.
OS: With all of Penn State’s campuses, you have a lot of ground to cover — how difficult will it be to assure that all the commonwealth campuses, as well as University Park, are able to implement and abide by the recommendations made by the task force?
PA: There is no doubt that providing coordination for so many different campuses — each of which has its own unique culture — will be one of the primary challenges I will be facing in my role. I am hopeful that by taking the time to understand the different issues that are present on each campus, I can make a lot of progress in crafting a system that capitalizes on what we all have in common, while also recognizing and accounting for the differences that exist.
OS: The position of Title IX Coordinator is a demanding job. What has motivated you or inspired you to want to work in preventing sexual assault on campus?
PA: As I mentioned before, this line of work presents a unique opportunity for me to interact with young people in a way that can really effect positive change. In the end, life is about people, so I can’t think of a better way to go than what I’m doing now.
OS: Now for an Onward State tradition: If you could be a dinosaur, which one would you be and why?
PA: Oh wow. I guess the one that survived the asteroid and evolved into a bird? That’s the name of the game sometimes — survive and advance.