February 21, 2017

Stay the Course

Federal pressure on Title IX may ebb; University commitment to strong sexual assault policies should not.

As long as the University of Chicago remains a federally-funded institution, it must adhere to the Title IX amendment of 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in education. As administrations change, different Secretaries of Education have had varied interpretations of what constitutes discrimination. These interpretations do not carry the full force of the law, but provide guidelines by which the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) will evaluate policies. Under the Obama administration, for example, the OCR issued the current reading of Title IX, which lowers the standard of proof in sexual assault cases. Outlined in its 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter,” the OCR mandates that academic institutions must discipline those who are found to be more likely than not to have committed an offense. With the recent confirmation of Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos to Secretary of Education, the current interpretation is likely to change, meaning that universities will not be expected to adjudicate on sexual assault changes. If and when this happens, the University should redouble its commitment to sexual assault survivors on campus, who will be directly affected by likely changes to Title IX.

To put it mildly, the University has had a difficult history with Title IX, frequently failing to provide sufficient support to sexual assault survivors. In 2014, three years after the “Dear Colleague Letter,” a student filed a formal complaint with the OCR claiming that the University of Chicago had mishandled disciplinary procedures when she was sexually assaulted by her partner. The dean of students at the time, Susan Art, allegedly classified the encounter as a “dispute between students” and instructed the survivor to try meditation as a strategy for moving past the psychological trauma she incurred from the assault. Although Art denied the student’s claims, OCR lawyers believed that the complaints from the survivor and other students were grounds for opening a federal investigation into the University.

Immediately after, the University pledged to implement a revised disciplinary process. Throughout the next few years, the University made concerted efforts to improve its handling of sexual assault, appointing a Title IX coordinator and instituting UMatter, a website clearly outlining the procedures students should follow when reporting a sexual assault.  

This progress, however, could be undone at any moment by the current Secretary of Education. DeVos has not directly stated if she would scale back the OCR and issue a different reading of Title IX. During her confirmation hearing, she refused to answer whether she would uphold the “Dear Colleague Letter,” instead saying “it would be premature” to respond to the question. It’s likely, however, that DeVos will act in accordance with the 2016 GOP platform, which believes that the OCR letter was an example of the federal government overstepping its bounds. According to the platform, universities should not be responsible for investigating sexual assault claims and the onus should instead be on the court system.

Although the Republican Party believes that courts should be the only entity responsible for adjudicating on matters of sexual assault, it doesn’t explicitly say that universities must be passive entities in the matter. If and when DeVos issues a new reading of Title IX, the University should continue its efforts to combat sexual assault. Many survivors are not looking for justice in the courtroom, said Phoenix Survivor Alliance co-leader Meg Dowd in a previous interview with The Maroon. Instead of putting their perpetrator in jail, many sexual assault survivors would rather simply be assured that they will not have to interact with their assailants again. The federal government should not force all survivors to face their assailants in court and go through the trauma of having to recount their assault in detail in front of a jury. If survivors want smaller justices, like banning their assailants from their dorm or class, they should have the appropriate avenue to achieve them.  

A University spokesperson did not comment on whether the administration’s policy on sexual assault aligns with the GOP platform that will likely be pursued by DeVos. “If anyone chooses to pursue a criminal complaint, the University will still offer support and resources,” News Office spokesperson Marielle Sainvilus wrote in a statement to The Maroon. “We will continue to work with federal offices to ensure compliance with Title IX and relevant regulations, as part of the University’s broader commitment on these issues.”

However, this answer, by simply suggesting that the University will blindly defer to federal offices regardless of the policies the Department of Education plans to pursue, is evasive and out of touch with the political realities of the Trump administration. If DeVos no longer forces universities to follow the guidelines in the 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter,” will UChicago change the way it handles disciplinary proceedings around sexual assault? Will we regress to a system where sexual assault is called “a dispute between students” and where survivors will have to face their perpetrator every day in their dorm or in their classes?

We cannot let the University backslide simply because the Trump administration would allow such behavior. As we have seen before, the administration has a history of mishandling sexual assault cases and belittling the trauma and hardship of its students. If the government will no longer keep the University accountable for its handling of sexual misconduct, then the University administration must take up that responsibility itself.

—The Maroon Editorial Board