In her hearing before the Senate on Jan. 17, Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos remarked that “assault in any form is never okay,” a claim about which she “want[s] to be very clear.” Yet, despite her conviction, DeVos refused to promise to uphold the Obama administration’s provisions for how schools should handle campus sexual assault. DeVos' actions in this respect contradict her words, comprising just one reason, among many others, why college students should actively watch the Department and fight her decrees if need be now that she has been nominated in a 51-50 vote.
For context of her statements, in 2011, the Office of Civil Rights within the United States Department of Education published a letter entitled “Dear Colleague,” which provided strong recommendations on behalf of the Obama administration for how colleges should be handling allegations of sexual assault on their campuses. The administration based their recommendations on their interpretation of Title IX, a 1972 federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs that receive federal funding. The law was originally intended to remedy gender inequities in sports funding, but it has since been applied more broadly, from regulations regarding women in STEM to sexual assault and, more recently, transgender rights.
The reason behind the Obama administration’s guidance is important. The “Dear Colleague” letter was written to address the facts on the ground about sexual assault. According to the National Institute of Justice, several studies indicate that between 18 and 20 percent of women experience rape or some other form of sexual assault while in college. Moreover, according to a piece in New York Magazine, students who experienced sexual violence in school and reported the incidents to their school administration frequently report that their cases were ignored or mishandled; this often results in unfortunate consequences, such as victims dropping out of school or developing mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Furthermore, research suggests that many people who commit sexual assault are repeat offenders; as a result, when schools do not investigate and hold students responsible for sexual misconduct, they continue to put their students at risk of assault.
In stating that she would not uphold the Obama administration's sexual assault provisions, DeVos did not necessarily do wrong. However, the danger in her statement lies in the fact that she does not have an alternative plan that would be similarly focused on combating sexual assault. DeVos gave no evidence of such a plan in her hearings, nor did she provide any real reasons for her opposition to the Obama administration's “Dear Colleague” letter. Although it is possible that the recommendations enclosed in the letter are not doing much to improve the matter of sexual assault, the implications of the letter are still playing out and so their full effect has yet to be seen. Moreover, though DeVos, in her comments, did allude to a concern for the rights of those accused of sexual assault, the reality is that it is impossible to put a number on the percentage of accusations that are false, but there is little evidence that the rates are high or vary greatly from rates of other forms of misconduct that campuses regulate.
I would be more willing to listen to DeVos' critique of the current system if she appeared to have given real thought to the problem, demonstrating understanding of the facts and intensity of the matter, and included alternative suggestions. Unfortunately, in her hearing DeVos does not appear to have had any such thoughts. Instead, she simply has stated that “if confirmed, [she] look[s] forward to understanding past actions and [the] current situation better.” That’s it — no substance at all.
The available information regarding DeVos’ stance on sexual assault seems to depart from the statements she expressed in her hearing. Since she did not provide much substantive information in her hearing, sexual assault advocates are now being forced to look elsewhere for evidence on what her stance may be. And what information has been uncovered isn’t very reassuring. What is known is that DeVos' family organization has given large donations to groups that are fighting for the "Dear Colleague" letter regulations to be reversed.
DeVos is confirmed as of yesterday. But the confirmation suggests that her decision on the sexual assault guidance is still in the air, having neither outrightly promised to uphold nor withdraw the policy recommendations. Hopefully, she will educate herself and come to the right conclusion. But in the meantime, students should keep an eye on the Department of Education’s actions and continue to pressure the Department and their overseers in Congress to ensure DeVos and her department keep pressure on schools to do right by victims of sexual assault and stop rape culture.
Marni Morse is a politics major from Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.