“If everything is harassment, then nothing is,” said Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at George Mason University on Thursday morning as she announced the Department’s plans to review and possibly overhaul Obama-era guidelines for sexual misconduct on college campuses.
In her speech, DeVos publicly condemned the Obama administration’s 2011 Title IX guidance, sent in the form of a “Dear Colleague Letter,” which mandated that all colleges receiving federal funding use a lower standard of proof — a preponderance of evidence — in cases of sexual assault. She criticized the Obama administration for compelling schools to enforce “ambiguous and incredibly broad definitions of assault and harassment” and stressed that the current approach sidelines the rights of the accused.
DeVos added that the department will be seeking public feedback as it considers replacing the current system with one that is “workable, effective and fair.”
Just hours after DeVos’ statement, Deputy Provost for Health Affairs and Academic Integrity Stephanie Spangler sent an email to the Yale community reiterating the University’s commitment to addressing allegations of misconduct fairly. Spangler added that Yale will take advantage of the department’s request for comments to describe its continuing efforts to create a “healthy campus culture.”
“We remain steadfast in our dedication to our values and to our commitment to address allegations of misconduct promptly and fairly and to challenge conduct that denies individuals an equal opportunity to achieve their professional and educational aspirations,” Spangler said in an email to the News.
Yale College Dean Marvin Chun described DeVos’ announcement as “troubling” but said he would have to look more closely at her statement before commenting further.
Public Relations Coordinator for the Women’s Center Mary Miller ’20 said that although DeVos acknowledged that sexual assault accusations need to be taken seriously, there are good reasons to be concerned about the lens through which DeVos and her team view the issue of sexual misconduct. In particular, Miller took issue with DeVos’ belief that Title IX employs ambiguous and overbroad definitions of sexual assault and harassment.
“What she is looking to do here is narrow the definition of assault and harassment that is being used in Title IX, which is seriously dangerous,” Miller said. “It is a broad definition because the scope of harassment and assault is broad. Frankly, it’s unsettling that DeVos would believe that since so much seems to be qualifying as harassment, the problem is our definition and not our culture.”
Miller added that while Title IX is not perfect and needs work, the way in which DeVos is spinning the issue is “terrifying.”
Title IX, passed among the Education Amendments of 1972, protects people from discrimination on the basis of sex and gender at institutions that receive federal funding. Though the legislation initially offered female athletes the same benefits as their male counterparts, the Obama administration’s Dear Colleague Letter later reinterpreted Title IX to give the federal government jurisdiction over the handling of sexual assault allegations. Just a week before Yale and thousands of other universities across the United States were asked to comply with the new 2011 guidelines, 16 students and alumni filed a complaint in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that Yale had allowed a hostile sexual environment to persist on campus. Following that, then-University Provost Peter Salovey announced a new grievance procedure in the form of a University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct — a group to which students across the University can submit cases of sexual misconduct, which had been in the works since early 2010.
Later that year, Yale redefined its terms of sexual misconduct to encompass sexually harassing speech and online communication, as well as nonconsensual sexual contact.
According to Miller, the Women’s Center will watch how the issue develops. If it becomes clear that Title IX is going to be overhauled to “unevenly protect the accused,” the Center will take a stance on behalf of Title IX and will protest, when doing so is appropriate, Miller added.
“We need to be ensuring that no matter what road the Department of Education goes down, that at Yale, students who experience assault and harassment have every confidence in the University that if they come forward, justice will be achievable for them,” Miller said.
According to the semiannual Title IX report, Yale received 82 complaints of sexual misconduct between January 1 and June 30.
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