Late last year, the Education Department announced its plan to implement policy changes in Title IX guidelines that are meant to shape how universities receiving public funding handle campus sexual assault. Among the most alarming changes are proposals to limit universities’ authority to investigate assaults off campus or school property, allow accused students to cross-examine survivors and establish a narrower, more stringent definition of sexual harassment.
These proposed guideline changes are a dramatic contrast from those under the Obama-era Education Department. Back then, the department made significant efforts to support survivors by lowering evidentiary standards and putting greater pressure on universities to take sexual violence seriously. With changes taking effect soon, the Education Department is taking comments from constituents until Jan. 28.
At this critical moment, it is crucial that USC speaks clearly to the student body about how these federal guideline changes would impact the University’s Title IX office and its treatment of students.
Specifically, USC must develop a proactive campus education campaign to ensure that students know and understand USC’s policies on sexual misconduct and the current reporting process in the Trump era. The University must be transparent about its policies, plans and intentions. This includes hearing student voices through town halls and listening sessions and increasing engagement with student cultural assemblies that represent students who are disparately affected by sexual violence.
Advocates of justice for sexual assault survivors have long spoken out against and demonstrated how proposals by the Trump Education Department’s proposals are damaging to survivors’ rights and safety, and the aforementioned proposed changes are no different. These policy changes will almost certainly discourage already jarringly low reporting rates. More than 90 percent of campus sexual assaults are unreported, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. And despite the Education Department’s misguided narrative of standing up for men victimized by purported “false accusers,” men are more likely to experience sexual violence themselves than be falsely accused of it.
In other words, the University has a moral obligation to use its national influence to reject and speak out against these proposed changes. As an institution of higher learning, there is simply no excuse for USC to remain silent on a pressing issue that so vastly impacts the safety, dignity and health of its students.
Research has shown that 34 percent of all survivors of campus rape in the United States are not able to graduate due to universities’ failure to provide adequate resources for survivors. In addition to rejecting the proposed changes, USC should also call upon its students to make their voices heard and directly submit comments to the Education Department about the proposals during the comment period.
But in addition to speaking out against these immoral policy proposals at the national level, the University must also speak directly to its students about the resources available to survivors. An AlcoholEdu course — or any online program to be thoughtlessly clicked through — simply will not suffice.
USC must engage more with residence halls, cultural assemblies, campus organizations, student government and departments to ensure that students know how to reach USC Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services, Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards and other campus groups that offer wide-ranging support and resources to survivors.
Moreover, this outreach must involve more proactive listening to students and survivors about their needs and where the University should invest more funding and resources to meet these needs. For example, many students have demanded improved access to rape kits for years, as well as more expansive education about campus sexual violence prevention.
Frankly, if any university ought to speak loud and clear and reject the Trump administration’s latest round of threats to survivors’ safety, it’s this one. In recent years, USC has been embroiled in multiple sexual misconduct scandals, including one involving a former campus gynecologist accused of assaulting hundreds of former patients for nearly three decades. The University’s rate of reported sexual assaults has also narrowly exceeded the national average in recent years, according to USC’s Annual Security and Fire Safety Report.
As a result of these scandals, the University has lost trust and credibility among its most important stakeholders — its students. Now, USC must take the first step toward establishing trust by proactively working to advocate for survivors’ rights.