Education Secretary Betsy Devos recently revealed that she intends to rescind Title IX guidelines for handling cases of sexual misconduct that were introduced by the Obama administration in 2011. These guidelines, outlined by the “Dear Colleague” letter, reduce the standard for proof in cases of sexual violence and allow for victims to appeal not-guilty verdicts. Importantly, these “guidelines” are only that: guidelines. Because of the manner in which they were released, they are not legally binding. Despite this technicality, the Department of Education and subject colleges and universities treated them as if they were law. Lacking legitimate legal authority, the guidelines described in the “Dear Colleague” letter can be overwritten by a similar letter from the Trump administration. Instead of pursuing this easy fix, however, Devos intends to rescind these guidelines with the correct legal procedures, presumably to make it more difficult for future administrations to reverse this policy.
Critics of Devos’ decision to rescind these regulations claim that she is making it more difficult for victims to reach justice in cases of sexual assault. Without opportunities to appeal, it is likely that some cases of sexual assault will not reach justice. Given that only 20 percent of female victims of sexual assault on college campuses report the crime in the first place, it is critical that perpetrators are held responsible for their crimes. When victims see that justice is attainable, there is more incentive to report sexual violence. Devos claims, however, that the current guidelines create another group of victims: those wrongfully accused of sexual assault. Because most institutions have their own definitions of what is and is not sexual assault, it is difficult to get an accurate estimate of the rate at which presumed assailants are falsely accused. In other words, whether or not someone is wrongly accused of sexual assault depends on which definition of sexual assault is used. One study found rates of false reports as low as 2.1 percent, while another found rates as high as 7.1 percent. Devos is concerned that these people—whether it is 2.1 percent of those accused, 7.1 percent of those accused, or somewhere in between—do not receive due process under the current version of Title IX.
In response to Devos’ proposed changes to Title IX, Daniel Diermeier, a provost with the University of Chicago, sent an email to students, faculty, staff, and other personnel reaffirming its commitment to preventing discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, and any other legally protected classes such as age or religion. The email from the provost repeats that sexual misconduct is “unacceptable and will not be tolerated.” After mentioning the recent commotion surrounding Title IX at the federal level, Diermeier asserts that the University of Chicago’s support for its community members on Title IX issues will continue “independent of legal requirements.” Additionally, Diermeier writes that “the University will continue to ensure compliance with Title IX and relevant federal regulations and state law.” While these statements do not directly state that the University will continue to enforce stricter standards than those desired by Devos, the language indicates that the University could do so, if it believes it to be in the best interest of the community.
In addition to reaffirming the University’s commitment to preventing discrimination and supporting victims of Title IX offenses, Diermeier’s email offered a list of resources for community members involved with issues of discrimination, sexual misconduct, or other Title IX offenses. To promote awareness of these resources, the facts surrounding sexual misconduct, and training in risk prevention, the University of Chicago now requires all graduate students, professional students, and second through fourth year undergraduate students to complete an online training course. First year undergraduates are exempt from this activity because the information is already covered through required online training and in-person training during Orientation Week.
By implementing this plan for additional training for students, it is presumed that the University hopes to see a decline in issues of discrimination, sexual misconduct, and other Title IX violations. But while a decline in these issues may be anticipated, it is inevitable that some violations will occur. With the University of Chicago’s prestigious reputation, many eyes will be watching how the University decides to handle these issues in the wake of Devos’ decision. As Devos remarked in a speech at George Mason University in early September, “Educational institutions have a responsibility to protect every student’s right to learn in a safe environment and to prevent unjust deprivations of that right.” With the additional awareness and prevention training provided to students, it appears that the University is making sure that every member of its community shares this responsibility.
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Tim Koenning is a second year public policy and political science major interested in education policy and electoral politics. This past summer, he interned in the Office of Governor Mark Dayton in St. Paul, Minnesota. In his free time, Tim enjoys running varsity track and cross country, and cheering on the Washington Wizards.