This summer, the news that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was looking into Obama administration policies on campus sexual assault caused an uproar — particularly after DeVos included advocates for the falsely accused in her “listening meetings.”
Last week, DeVos’ speech on the issue was met with hostility even before it was delivered Thursday at George Mason University in Virginia. Her detractors are accusing her of attacking rape victims and seeking to roll back protections for women. But in fact, the speech was almost certainly the best thing to come out of the Trump administration so far. It was well-reasoned, well-grounded in facts, sensitive, and it struck the right balance between concern for victims and concern for the accused. The only question is how much of it can be channeled into action.
On a policy level, DeVos praised the Obama administration for listening to survivors and bringing the issue into the spotlight, but also criticized its heavy-handed approach of pressuring colleges and universities to get tough on sexual misconduct without proper regard for the rights of the accused. Under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, academic institutions that fail to protect students from sex-based violence and harassment risk losing federal funds. The Obama administration’s 2011 guidelines directed colleges to use the lowest possible standard of proof in adjudicating sexual assault complaints and discouraged cross-examination.
But DeVos also reminded her audience that “we’re not just talking about faceless ‘cases’ about people’s lives.” Her speech focused on personal stories — from students who experienced sexual assault, but also from those who found themselves on the receiving end of false or frivolous charges.
She talked about a Navy veteran who attempted suicide after being kicked out of college three weeks before graduation on a sexual harassment charge of which he never found out the specifics. She talked about a young woman who felt victimized by her school when her boyfriend was expelled for assaulting her even though she repeatedly said the alleged assault, reported by an eyewitness, was mutual playful roughhousing. She talked about dozens of lawsuits from students who say they were wronged.
These stories are not made up on right-wing blogs; they have been extensively reported in the media. Most recently, the abuses of the system are examined in a three-part series by Emily Yoffe on the website of The Atlantic. (Yoffe’s last installment, focusing on the disproportionate targeting of African-American men by the campus kangaroo courts, should invite progressive supporters of the Title IX status quo to do some hard thinking.)
DeVos repeatedly stressed the importance of due process. As she put it, “Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined.” This should not be controversial.
What happens next? DeVos has announced a “transparent notice-and-comment” process in which students, legal and professional experts, and activists will all be able to offer feedback on how to reform the rules. One proposal is to create “regional centers” that would examine campus complaints in cooperation with law enforcement.
The big question is whether her initiatives get past the hostility toward the Trump administration, especially on issues related to sexual violence. Despite the backlash, there are some promising signs: commentators in The Washington Post and Politico have spoken in support of her effort, as has a USA Today editorial. Perhaps this is, at least, the start of a genuine dialogue.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.