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DeVos and the legacy of assault on campus

Last week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reaffirmed her stance on repealing the Title IX reforms made under the Obama administration. Although her statements have once again brought campus sexual assault policy back into the forefront of national news cycles, for many survivors, discussion of how universities deal with sexually-based offenses can be an everyday reality. Just in the past month, outrage took over the University of North Alabama as allegations surfaced that the school was trying to silence a student who had reportedly been assaulted by a former professor and at the University of Rochester, students threatened a hunger strike over the handling of a case of alleged misconduct from a faculty member. DeVos’ comments and the constant stream of new scandals like these are signals for a dire need to reflect on Title IX and its functionality in protecting those on college campuses. 

Despite the likelihood of DeVos’s coming reforms ultimately hurting survivors and their ability to seek justice, it is important to resist the urge to reactionarily defend the Obama era implementations. Title IX is inadequate for handling sexual assault cases from a bureaucratic level and has proven this incompetence time and time again. The institutions tasked with logistics, such as Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office, are simply too ill-equipped to serve the needs of student populations in this capacity. 

Additionally, the powerful role Title IX grants universities in the resolution of sexual assault cases, is inherently flawed. Colleges like Duke are political agents just like any other private organization and have vested interests when it comes to these accusations, which can affect ethical adjudication of reports. Just last year, Duke was named in a lawsuit about the mishandling of a sexual assault case because the defendant in question was the son of a former Provost. Furthermore, even if those being accused of sexual misconduct aren’t related to university officials, administrators still have incentives for keeping their crime rates low, which breeds a method of institutional operation can often discourage reporting and alienate victims.

Title IX also inadequately addresses the role of power dynamics in many cases of sexual misconduct. The reality is that many of the sexual crimes committed on campus take place far from bars and frat parties and happen between professors and other members of the community, from undergraduates to colleagues. In a considerable number of cases, sexual misconduct is deeply linked to the exertion of unequal power within the university structure, a reality ignored by both Betsy DeVos and Title IX. 

Although often tempting to oppose everything coming out of the Trump administration, it’s imperative to take DeVos’ statements as an opportunity to think critically about what campus sexual assault policy should look like. Instead of focusing on the repeal of Obama era advancements, there needs to be be a concerted effort to work on re-imagining the process to strip the university of its undue power and to bring a more just treatment of sexual assault cases. Survivors and future generations of college students deserve it.

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