Equitable Justice or the Economics of Assault?

Proposed changes to Title IX leave some Hamline students angry, others unaware.

Andy Stec, Senior Collumnist

St. Paul teachers and Hamline students alike marched down Snelling in protest once, a year and some change ago. When current Secretary of Education Betsy Devos was first going through her congressional hearings for approval, Hamline students seemed politically motivated enough. As is the syndrome of midterm season, this activity has trickled out. Most did not express immediate knowledge or interest in Devos and her approach to student debt, as the courts ruled against her favor earlier this month, but her recent actions regarding Title IX have garnered attention and scrutiny.

Devos formally rescinded a letter issued by the Obama administration in 2011 which stressed the responsibility of federally-aided universities to investigate reported sexual assault, and this methodological rhetoric continued along the path of least fiscal resistance. In August the New York Times obtained drafts of the Department of Education’s suggested changes to how Universities handle campus sexual assault. The core of Title IX – protection against sexual discrimination – remains untouched but seeks to strictly define sexual discrimination within it for the first time, while emphasizing the protection of the accused from pseudo-judicial courts set up on campuses. Due process, Devos and her fellows in the Department believe, has been restored to the sexual assault investigation process.

Universities are now allowed to set their own evidentiary standard, decide if an appeals process exists and open up evidence for full viewing by both parties regardless if it plays a role in the case itself. Devos’ new regulations would “add the ability for victims and their accused perpetrators to request evidence from each other and to cross-examine each other.” This informal method of mediation would involve the accuser and accused directly questioning each other, which had previously been viewed as intimidating, traumatic, and thereby inappropriate by the previous administration.

The definition of ‘sexual harassment’ has also been narrowed to the Supreme Court’s precedent, “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.” Devos is rolling back previous federal guidance which had sought to broaden the definition with “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” Likewise, previous Obama-era rules had made universities legally responsible for all claims, while the new proposals tighten this culpability to only official claims filed with appropriate administrative figures – not, for instance, an RA.

“I just think they’re changes no one asked for,” one Hamline student said, “and the idea of personal cross examination is messed up, it’s just promoting unhealthy interaction.”

While the Department of Education maintains that it is enacting changes which will uphold the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” Hamline students have expressed unease at the sidelining of sexual assault victims in an already difficult process. The prospect of victims having to face their abuser and defend their own experience to them seems to be asking for unreported assaults to dramatically rise, and this is realistically a large motivator for the federal government. University investigations into sexual assault is already low (an average of 1.18/institution/year), but the new Devos rules would pursue a 39 percent further decrease in such assault inquiries – the “payoff” being $400 million saved over the next ten years.

While PR plays the Title IX rollback off as a defense of judicial due process, there is also undoubtedly a fiscal angle to the policy which significantly sours its intent. Universities that receive federal aid use some of that aid on their whopping 1-2 investigations/year, so less assaults would equate to less taxpayer money spent. But the Devos administration has taken a skewed rhetorical approach to the matter, whereby inquiries themselves should be limited – essentially taping over real assaults. Real crimes are taking place, and the Devos answer is to stop asking questions because crime is expensive. Nevermind the implications this policy carries in regards to the commodification and objectification of violence towards women.

In regards to Hamline specifically, there is some degree of leeway here. As a private university, there is a greater degree of independence administration can pursue when it comes to federal rules and regulations – though Hamline is not innocent itself of streamlining its own Title IX processes with the merging of the Title IX Coordinator role with the Dean position as had started when Patti Klein assumed office. On that note, I think the University would greatly appreciate any succinct clarifications the offices of the Dean or Title IX can offer as to how Hamline will be moving forward with these new federal policy proposals.