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Dr. Gail Stern on Betsy DeVos Title IX Announcement

September 14, 2017

So, like many of you who respect and fight for the rights of sexual assault survivors, I was perturbed by Betsy DeVos’ announcement this past Thursday. When announcing her renunciation of the guidelines provided in the “Dear Colleague Letter,” she stated,  

“Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach…With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today.” 

While she pledged to replace the campus adjudication process for sexual assault with a better system, her statements made it clear that she felt that the processes unfairly affected the men who were accused.  

Even though the research clearly shows that the rate of false reporting runs between 2% and 8%, DeVos and her team were clearly unmoved by data, with one senior staff member even arguing that 90% of the cases were really just drunken hookups. 

So yes, when I heard her announcement I was perturbed, but not at all surprised. We are living during a time when most of the major federal agencies and departments are being led by those who are not only unqualified to lead them, but often deny the very facts that justify their existence. DeVos’ consulting of rape deniers, rather than research or subject matter experts, on sexual assault policy for college campuses, is right in line with her federal contemporaries.  

This ignorance of the research not only endangers female-identified survivors, but also renders the experience of male-identified sexual assault survivors invisible. When the discussion of fair judicial procedures is framed as a “men vs. women” issue, it is then articulated as one of gender-related mistakes and misunderstandings. As a result, unethical and criminal behavior against women can be excused, and justice for male survivors has no place in the conversation. 

Even so, DeVos’ announcement was a mixed blessing. When she rescinded the substantive guidelines of the “Dear Colleague letter,” the clearest injunction to institutions of higher education on their responsibility to support victims; hold perpetrators accountable; and, provide comprehensive education on sexual violence, she both demonstrated her ignorance while giving universities an opportunity. 

The pessimist could view that opportunity thusly: Higher Ed, you’re off the hook. The federal government will no longer hold you accountable for what you do or don’t do regarding sexual violence on your campus. Higher Ed, you may even cease viewing it as a problem for which you are responsible—after all, it is a crime, and crimes belong in courts, not in campus judicial proceedings. 

But I, after some days of ranting, am going to take the optimistic view.  There is, in fact, a very positive opportunity for universities here, that has nothing to do with risk mitigation, damage control, or ass-covering. Remarkably, it could ignite a return to the very core principles upon which colleges and universities were founded: the mission to create educated, conscientious contributors to our local and global community.  It is time universities reinvigorated their commitment to the development of the whole student—emphasizing the principles that undergird a civil, ethical society. 

So, what does that mean? What are these high-faluting principles? Basically, it’s about how it’s wrong to hurt someone. How it’s wrong to stand by why while someone takes advantage of another’s vulnerability to exploit them. Yes, I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s just how to live as a respectful citizen of the world.  

It’s now our job to find ways of communicating this powerfully to administrators, colleagues, and potential champions of our cause. For example, a way to explain it to someone in terms they will understand might be:, if I kept punching you in the face, and you said, “Hey, that’s assault,” and my response was, “well I didn’t know that was a criminal act, so what,” I still knew I was hurting you. Ignorance of the law does not negate my knowledge of how my actions have impacted you. Similarly, rape and sexual assault are not wrong because they’re crimes. They’re crimes because they’re wrong. It is wrong to decide that your pleasure is worth more than someone’s pain. It’s wrong to use your power to take advantage of someone’s momentary weakness. It’s wrong to bully someone into giving you what you want, even if you really, really want it. 

If institutions care about the impact of cheating on their campuses—which is a conscious diminishment of the academic contract—they should care about rape on campus. Rape is the diminishment of trust, compassion—the human contract. Regardless of what new fresh hell DeVos brings in the way of judicial guidelines, institutions of Higher Ed should use their moral compass to chart the way.

Dr. Gail Stern

Dr. Gail Stern

Dr. Gail Stern is the co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Catharsis Productions, the largest provider of military sexual violence prevention programs for the Department of Defense (DoD).