On Feb. 7, leading Republican donor Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the Senate as the U.S. secretary of education. After a contentious confirmation period and a tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence, DeVos was appointed to the position despite weeks of protests from Democrats and two Republican defections from confirmation. And as a wealthy Republican donor with no substantive experience in public schooling, she should be questioned.
Now that DeVos is officially in charge of public education, teachers and administrators throughout the nation are voicing their disdain for her views, especially on charter schools and voucher programs at the K-12 level. At public colleges, students are worried about DeVos’ Republican politics resulting in budget cuts and tuition hikes. At a private college like USC, students may think that they are generally safe from policy changes from the Department of Education. Though private university students are more insulated from federal education policy than those at public schools, DeVos has demonstrated worrying stances on sexual assault and other hot-button campus issues that can still affect USC students.
When Senator Bob Casey asked DeVos if she would uphold the Obama administration’s guidelines around campus sexual assault in her confirmation hearings, DeVos dodged the question.
“If confirmed, I would look forward to working with you and your colleagues and understand the range of opinions and understand the issues from the higher ed institutions that are charged with resolving these,” DeVos said. It’s a characteristically weak stance that showed that perhaps she wasn’t ready for the question, which is surprising because campus sexual assault is one of the most visible education issues in the nation.
As the national head of the public education system, DeVos could reverse the reforms that former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden put in place to make campuses safer for sexual assault survivors. Under the former administration, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights released a famous 2011 letter entitled “Dear Colleague,” which advised higher education officials to make changes in their treatment of sexual assault cases. These changes included considering sexual assault as a form of sexual harassment that violated Title IX and using a lower standard of evidence in sexual assault cases than that required in criminal cases. This acknowledged the difficult nature of collecting evidence for sexual assault cases, which can leave survivors traumatized and too afraid of shame and blame to come forward at all.
OCR’s actions, combined with the creation of a special White House task force on sexual assault and the vice president’s “It’s On Us” campaign, established the Obama White House as a strong fighter for victim’s rights.
Under DeVos, the education department could lose this reputation, or even proceed in the opposite direction. Though the secretary didn’t assert a stance on the issue, her donations tell another story. Between 2012 and 2013, DeVos and her husband donated a total of $10,000 to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE is dedicated to defending the individual rights of students and professors, but also advocates for the right of those accused of sexual assault. At one point in the Obama administration, FIRE sued to raise the standard of proof for victims and increase the role of law enforcement in sexual assault cases. Though these objectives are a small part of the organization’s platform, DeVos’ involvement with FIRE shows that she may pursue the same policies.
Additionally, there is speculation among anti-campus sexual assault advocacy organizations such as End Rape on Campus that DeVos might require colleges to leave cases of sexual assault solely to law enforcement, and it could be within the scope of her authority to do so. Since survivors tend to be intimidated by outside law enforcement, research suggests that this would dramatically lower rates of reporting and thus lower survivors’ chances of receiving justice.
By rolling back the Obama administration changes — which still were not enough to truly address the issue — the nation’s higher education systems will be taking a giant step backward. Tipping the scales further away from victims and moving the responsibility toward law enforcement will only leave students in more danger. The systems that we have on college campuses are not perfect by any means, but the changes made in the last six years have been hugely beneficial to provide support for victims and improve campus culture.
With an administration that has already proven itself to be insensitive to the issue of sexual assault (note the “grab them by the p-ssy” scandal), even private college students cannot sit back and let changes be made. Beyond her complete lack of competence in the job, DeVos could seriously ruin the policies around sexual assault that have changed campus culture for the better.