Am I even allowed to talk about Title IX? I’m a male who isn’t particularly steeped in the history of sexual assault prevention and justice. I don’t have the wealth of knowledge that activists and scholars on this subject might possess; other matters of hot-button political debates pique my interest, but I’ve never had any real intellectual interest in Supreme Court cases or the nuts and bolts of federal law.
Regardless, I’m an opinion columnist, which I guess allows me to write with one degree of authority on any public subject. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ proposed actions revoking Obama-era Title IX guidance in the department’s internal bureaucracy bring up a lot of interesting questions.
To begin, my understanding is that the Obama administration’s Title IX guidelines did two things: They expanded the definition of sexual assault to a broader context than previously determined, and grated teeth to the existing class of enforcement officials employed by universities, expanding their authority and responsibilities with regard to prosecution.
The enforcement is part of the policy that I don’t have any problem with. The expansion of the definition and treatment of sexual assault in court is a different matter. It’s probably justified in some regard, but when it expands to include whatever activities the Harvard Gender Studies Department wants it to include, or when it rejects the need for corroborating evidence other than the victim’s own testimony, it starts to become shaky legal ground. I understand that the Obama-era regulations began to cover some of this territory.
Under these circumstances, it was probably a near-certainty that the next time a Republican administration controlled the Department of Education, some kind of review of Title IX would occur, especially in the aftermath of such major flukes as the Rolling Stone scandal regarding its reporting of an alleged rape at the University of Virginia. Continuously high rates of sexual assault on campus demonstrate the need for a commitment to enforcement; but if the enforcement of sexual assault rules is done haphazardly and without deliberation, there looms over the awkward irony that a “War on Rape” could grow as haplessly institutionalized, bureaucratically straitjacketed, and socially unjust to large groups of people as the failed, ongoing “War on Drugs” of the late 20th century.
For argument’s sake, I looked at The New York Times’ collection of opinion pieces from across the ideological spectrum — “Right and Left React to Betsy DeVos’ Changes to Campus Sex Assault Roles” — and noticed three things.
First, the left-leaning opponents of DeVos’ proposed reforms — Lucia Graves at The Guardian and Christina Cauterucci at Slate — seemed to be more concerned with justice for victims of sexual assault than with overall due process for both the victims and the accused. They also highlight that President Donald Trump and his core constituents are privileged white males who presumably are not feminists, and that DeVos’ actions reviewing Obama-era policies are a form of white identity politics. I don’t believe either of these attitudes is wrong, but I do think both concerns sidestep DeVos’ stated purpose in pursuing these reforms: “ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim … and those who are accused.” In other words, due process.
Second, the right-leaning supporters of DeVos’ proposed reforms, National Review fellow David French and Ashe Schow in The Federalist, were predictably caustic and partisan on the topic. Both lambasted “junk science” and “sex bureaucracies” as being illiberal and un-American. Their support for the reforms seem as ideological — opposed to feminism and big government — as they are practical.
But most interestingly, the authors culled from the center all came out in skeptical, cautious support of DeVos’ eform efforts. Their skepticism and caution came from an acknowledgment of the concerns of those on the left; but overall, Emily Yoffe from The Atlantic; Christina Hoff Sommers in the Chronicle of Higher Education; Karol Markowicz in the New York Post; and Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post all agreed that the Obama-era regulations were cumbersome, top-heavy, and threatening to due process. There was also a consensus among the critics that it is necessary for Congress to issue guidelines of its own as to what Title IX actually means, so that true deliberation and modest discussion can be held.
If the centrists are for DeVos’ reforms, albeit cautiously, there’s reason to believe that some good will come from them. I hope reasonable voices will prevail in the forthcoming debates over DeVos’ actions.
Luke Phillips is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.