The Department of Education’s (DOE) reform of Title IX — the law that bans discrimination based on sex at federally-funded schools — has been a long time coming. For three Senators, it has not been long enough. They strenuously object to the impact on how colleges handle accusations of sexual misconduct. No longer will an accused be presumed guilty until proven innocent. Instead, he will be accorded due process.
On March 31, Patty Murray — the leading Democrat on the Senate education committee — Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand sent a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to express their opposition to finalizing the reform. “We urge you not to release the final Title IX rule at this time,” they argued, “and instead to focus on helping schools navigate the urgent issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This is an odd argument. Now seems to be the perfect time for colleges to work on policy and administrative matters. Campuses are empty. No sexual misconduct hearings will be interrupted; students will be spared the confusion of a mid-semester policy change; administrators can implement regulations before the new academic year.
Colleges are hardly caught off guard. The reform began on September 22, 2017 when the DOE withdrew the controversial Dear Colleague Letter (2011) that governed the treatment of sexual misconduct accusations on campus. The Obama-era Letter was widely criticized for mandating a low standard of proof for findings of guilt and encouraging the denial of due process, such as a defendant’s right to a lawyer. The DOE’s replacement guideline was officially made public on November 29, 2018 when the Federal Register published “Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Sex in Education Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance.”
The proposed reform received vast attention and backlash in this time of #MeToo that demands automatic belief of women’s accusations. in January 2018, three national public interest organizations, including the highly influential National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), sued DeVos and the DOE to block the Title IX reform. The lawsuit claimed that the “new and extreme Title IX policy…was issued unlawfully and based on discriminatory beliefs about women and girls as survivors of sexual violence, in violation of the Constitution.” The lawsuit was eventually dismissed.
Senator Murray has also attacked the Title IX proposals. A news release from her office reported on Murray’s statements at a Senate hearing on campus sexual assault. “I stand with you [accusers] and I’m going to keep fighting to stop what happened to you.” Murray accused the DOE of being “callous” and ignoring “the experiences of survivors,” which would “discourage students from coming forward after being sexually assaulted.” Gillibrand has decried DeVos as favoring “predators over survivors.” Warren has stated, “There’s no greater example of how we’re failing students and teachers than Betsy DeVos, the worst Secretary of Education we’ve seen.” These statements do not argue for the delay but for the derailment of DOE’s plans.
Liberals view the new rules as a shift to the right and an abandonment of Obama-era policies. Consider two definitions of a key term, “sexual harassment.” According to the Dear Colleague Letter, “Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. It includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” This broad characterization includes bad jokes and leering glances. By contrast, DeVos uses the reigning Supreme Court definition of “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.” This is a far more limited definition.
Why, then, are the 3 Senators calling for delay rather than dismantlement? The coronavirus is unlikely to disappear as an issue before the 2020 election. And, if Joe Biden wins, he has promised the reform would be withdrawn. This process would be be easier, however, if policy changes were not already implemented.
Stalling the DOE reform seems to be a conscious strategy of its opponents. According to Tulane University Title IX coordinator, Meredith Smith, the NWLC orchestrated a sequence of delays with various victims rights groups. Smith stated, “So there was this delay strategy happening. We would hear that the Department of Education was about to release the regulations and then the National Women’s Law Center and all these other groups would parachute in and get more and more meetings on the calendar which push [the release date] back.” They requested a long series of meetings with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), for example. During the final public commentary on a regulation, individuals can meet in person or over the phone with OMB officials to share concerns; this process usually takes a couple of days, With the DOE regulation, the first meeting was November 13, 2019, and the process ended on March 27, 2020. It stretched over 4 months.
A recent article in the National Review, entitled “Coronavirus Is No Excuse to Delay the Education Department’s New Title IX Regulations,” declared, “Those making this argument [for postponement] are taking advantage of a crisis to try to keep due process out of college campuses.” They are gaming the system.
The DOE reform returns due process to campuses. It also offers relief to lawsuit-prone schools that now function as police, judge and jury in handling students and faculty accused of sexual misconduct. Increasingly, colleges are sued in federal court by those who were found guilty without a fair hearing. As a headline in the Detroit Free Press stated. “Courts ruling on side of students accused of sexual assault. Here’s why.” The “why” is the violation of their due process rights.
Justice delayed is justice denied. And Justice must not be further denied.