Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

A Step Back: Betsy DeVos and Her Removal of Strict Title IX Policies on University Campuses

By Jenna ZitomerPublished January 1, 2017

Secretary Devos' revocation of Obama era Title IX does a disservice to survivors of campus sexual assault

On university campus tours, we hear guides boasting claims of safety and security on campus at all times. They discuss the blue-light system, giving students a direct line to university police if ever feeling unsafe while walking about. They mention the value of Residential Advisors, upperclassmen who live in dorms with freshmen and sophomore students to act as a resource should they need someone to speak to on matters ranging from stress to their love lives. What they do not tell hopeful parents, however, is the fact that their daughters could be the one in four who graduate from university having been a victim of rape or other forms of sexual assault. They do not tell the eager girls on the tours that they could be part of the 5% of university women who report being victim to rape or attempted rape every year of their college career. They forget to inform 17-year old aspiring fraternity men that, they too, could be the 1 in 16 men who are victims of sexual assault before graduating from college. To put this into perspective, there are currently 14,315 undergraduates at Cornell University. Of these 14,315 students, roughly 1,861 of Cornell's female undergraduate students will graduate as survivors of sexual assault. Nearly 372 of these women will have experienced attempted rape or sexual assault each year of college. Of the university's undergraduate male population, about 429 Cornell men will graduate as victims of sexual assault.These statistics are reaching alarmingly high rates, and this does not even begin to delve into the stark increase in the prevalence of sexual assault on campus  for students of color or those in the queer community.

The Obama administration, chiefly under the guidance of then-Vice President Joe Biden, focused on providing justice to victims of sexual assault on college campuses, whose charges against their assailants often proved futile when cases focused on the accomplishments and passed characteristics of the criminals in court. Under his presidency, Obama ruled in favor of "preponderance of evidence", known more colloquially as "more likely than not" to have happened based on evidence provided by the court. This ruling was made principally because sexual assault cases often have no witnesses, and more times than not rape kits are not present as evidence. Rape cases are effectively a matter of who the jury and the judge believes: the rapist or the victim, making them extremely difficult to prove with hard evidence.  Vice President Biden further emphasized the importance of compliance with Title IX policies with regards to protecting and getting justice for survivors of sexual assault when he penned that "sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX" in his 2011 Dear Colleague letter. For victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence, Obama and Biden's commitment to tackling sexual assault at the university level came as a relief and a step in the right direction towards how sexual assault cases are handled on campuses.

However, current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, recently announced that the Trump Administration will be rescinding the Obama administration's policy changes regarding Title IX and sexual assault on the university campus, effective immediately. The changes, outlined in detail in a document released by the Department of Education, stress a higher level of evidence to be present in sexual assault cases, and effectively provide assailants with more protection when charges are pressed against them. DeVos emphasized the importance of giving justice to the accused, a complete turnaround from the angle at which the Obama administration looked to tackle sexual assault. What DeVos does not seem to realize, however, is that between only 2 and 10% of sexual assault allegations are false reports, a strikingly low statistic that is often wrongly elevated for the protection of the accused. The range of statistics that measure false reports are so varied due to inconsistencies with the definitions of buzzwords like rape, consent, and assault and the methods used to obtain this data, such as university-wide surveys and reports from Title IX offices, data that would be more stable if strict policies that crackdown on sexual assault were not being removed from university codes of conduct by the Department of Education. Additionally, fewer than one-third of sexual assault cases on university campuses result in the expulsion of the accused, and nearly one-quarter of these cases result in little or no punishment of the accused. False reports of rape and other forms of sexual violence on university campuses are consistently below 10%, meaning that 90% or more of reported rape and sexual assault cases are valid and accurate. Only 30% of assailants are expelled in college sexual assault cases in general, meaning that there are thousands of survivors each year who are not receiving justice for rapes and assaults committed against them. It means that thousands of rapists and assailants are getting away with inhumane crimes because universities do not want to do away with the powerful and privileged students and families that patrol and donate to their campuses, and even so, DeVos wants to protect them.

Further, co-president of Families Advocating for Campus Equality, Cynthia Garrett, claims DeVos's new guidelines alleviate the pressure that many universities may feel to press the evidence against and aggressively persecute the accused, but isn't this exactly what universities should be doing in order to protect students on their campuses and to provide justice for victims of sexual assault? Universities have a legal, moral, and social responsibility to protect their students from sexual violence and alleviating themselves of this so-called burden should be within neither their own nor the government's ability. When nearly 25% of rape cases on college campuses are committed by repeat offenders, universities should not be given the leeway room to wiggle around Title IX regulations in the name of protecting their reputations. DeVos's new policies can only make university campuses more dangerous, as they are providing assailants with easier ways to avoid expulsion and other punishments and are likely discouraging victims of sexual violence from reporting their assaults under the thought that their cases will not see justice in court.