by Mallory Carlson ’19
Betsy DeVos, who was named by President Trump to head the Department of Education, made headlines in September when she announced that the department would indeed roll back Obama administration rules on Title IX and the handling of sexual assault at schools, heightening the controversy surrounding campus sexual assault policies.
DeVos began promising change on the issue in early September, when she criticized the Obama administration, saying that “through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach.” Some argue that the Obama-era policies made it easier for victims to come forward, and advocates for victims of assault quickly rebutted DeVos’s claims with the argument that her proposed changes to the Title IX policies will reverse the progress made, namely through the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, which contained legal duties that must be upheld in the address of sexual assault on college campuses. The Department of Education rescinded that letter on September 22.
In a speech on that same day, DeVos argued for the rights of the accused, and said that many times the young (most oftentimes) men were not granted their right to due process. Some accused men and their supporters are of the belief that campus-level judicial systems are biased in the accusers’ favors. DeVos argued that there should be a higher standard of proof, specifically “clear and convincing evidence” for sexual assault cases, a reversal of the Obama administration policy that stated that colleges use the lowest standard of proof, or a preponderance of evidence, meaning that at least 50 percent of the evidence supports one claim. Opponents of DeVos’s actions say that the change in the policy concerning the amount of evidence needed will cause sexual assault victims without a surplus of evidence to not receive justice.
Many sexual assault prevention groups have stepped forward in opposition to DeVos, like It’s On Us, an organization founded by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in 2014. The nonprofit came out with a petition in support of Title IX policies, arguing that the Department of Education is revoking crucial pieces of legislation that protects sexual assault victims.
But DeVos also has a clear group of supporters, like Robert Shibley, who is the executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “The campus system was and is broken … With the end of this destructive policy, we finally have the opportunity to get it right,” he said.
As for her next steps, DeVos did not share what changes she specifically had in mind, but there will be a public commentary period, and during this time colleges can choose to maintain the lower standard of proof policy. Not all schools have publicly announced their responses to the policy change, but many students have taken to protesting DeVos’s decision, and a Harvard University spokesman wrote in an email statement that “we have worked hard in recent years to develop strong and fair policies … The safety and well-being of the community remains the University’s top priority.”