Our newly inaugurated president was voted into office vowing change. Such change has the potential to impact Americans of all ages. Federal law regarding sexual assault on college campuses–an aspect of college life vital to Emory students — is potentially up for revision.
Federal policy affects our lives in subtle ways; sexual assault policy is a notable example. Although individual schools are responsible for the enforcement of federal policy, the Department of Education has a wide mandate to dictate how universities interpret the law.
In a 2011 Dear Colleague letter, the Office of Civil Rights, a branch of the DOE, clarified the way it interpreted Title IX, a 1972 federal law that prohibits federally funded schools from discriminating based on sex in educational programs. This clarification, called historic by the then-assistant director of civil rights, changed the way universities handled sexual assault charges. Most notably, it required universities to use a “preponderance of evidence” standard when adjudicating sexual assault cases and brought the issue of campus sexual assault to the top of administrators’ agendas.
President Trump and his Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos could alter how campuses approach sexual assault, not just by changing the way Title IX is understood, but by reducing the Obama administration’s emphasis on sexual assault education and prevention efforts.
A shift will likely happen. In her confirmation hearing, DeVos refused to commit to keeping the 2011 letter in place. The current system has shortcomings: the number of students accused of sexual assault who successfully sued their universities for due process violations rose after the Dear Colleague letter. In May 2016, 21 law professors from schools such as Harvard and Stanford wrote a letter alleging the Department of Education actually changed the legal definition of sexual assault as opposed to just clarifying it in their letter.
Nonetheless, the 2011 letter has been greatly beneficial and must be kept in place. Any significant action will attract critics, but the moral imperative of eliminating an issue as systemic and pervasive as campus sexual assault requires drastic steps that inevitably incite backlash.
The nationwide push for increased sexual assault education, prevention and enforcement bolstered by Obama must not be abated. While significant progress has been made, much work remains. We are on the right path, and we must continue to walk it with or without the Oval Office.
Emory administrators assured that they have their priorities straight. In a meeting with the Wheel, Emory’s Title IX Coordinator Judith Pannell vowed that “regardless of the new administration, Emory will remain committed to maintaining a community free of harassment. We will remain committed to education, prevention and response.”
While Pannell’s reaffirmation is comforting, it is not an excuse to fall asleep at the wheel. Ultimately, students must remain attentive; pressure on the administration to uphold the standards we want them to uphold must come from the student body. Even if DeVos weakens enforcement and prevention of Title IX policy or tries to raise the required standard of evidence for sexual misconduct cases, the DOE cannot stop Emory’s community from making their voice heard.
Ensuring the 2011 letter remains Emory’s guiding principle is paramount. A new federal government means that responsibility is on our shoulders, and on this critical issue, the stakes are too high for us to shrug off.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board.