However harmful the effects of the “Dear Colleague” letter to colleges and universities from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, the document is a floor, not a ceiling, to OCR’s efforts to weaken campus due process. Resolution letters between OCR and various universities have allowed the agency to go well beyond the “Dear Colleague” letter’s terms. The Yale letter approved the “informal” process that allowed the university to brand a student a rapist without the accused having an opportunity to present evidence of his innocence. SMU and SUNY letters authorized the re-opening of cases where the accused student had been found not guilty, and oozed contempt for the idea that trained law enforcement personnel, instead of campus Title IX bureaucrats, should investigate sexual assault allegations. (Hans Bader has analyzed other resolution agreements, such as that with Tufts.) And the Montana letter envisioned a “blueprint” to weaken free speech on campus.
OCR’s most recent target, Michigan State, opens up a new inroad in the assault on campus due process.
A student identified only as “Student A” reported her alleged assault to the police, but not to the university, which instead learned about her allegations through media reports. The allegations weren’t very credible, as the police never filed charges. Nonetheless, when OCR discovered the charges, it told MSU that it needed to independently investigate the allegations. The university’s own investigation reached the same conclusion as the police—the accuser’s claims were not credible.
MSU nonetheless punished the accused students. As its investigation proceeded, the university forbade the accused students from contacting the accuser, and moved them out of their rooms to a different dorm, apparently well away from the accuser’s area of campus—which addressed the main concern the accuser said she had. The accused students apparently didn’t try to re-enter their old dorm, and the dorm to which they were reassigned was (according to the OCR letter) far away from their dining hall and their classes.
The accuser nonetheless cited the move in a Title IX complaint to OCR, apparently operating from the premise that students accused of sexual assault should be kicked out of all dorms, whether or not the accused students were guilty, and before any investigation had occurred. The accuser also claimed that the accused students violated a no-contact order—because, she reported, she had entered a university building and peered into a private tutoring room (through a glass panel in the door), where she spied the accused students meeting with a tutor. For reasons unexplained, she then stood outside the closed door for 30 minutes. There’s no evidence the male students saw the accuser until they left the room, but she interpreted their encountering her—after, to reiterate, she waited 30 minutes in a hall directly outside a room in which they were studying—as a violation of the no-contact order.
Even OCR conceded that this episode—which was, after all, directly initiated by the accuser—could not be held against the accused. That such an episode formed a key element of the accuser’s Title IX complaint demonstrates why reporters should be very skeptical when OCR reveals there’s a Title IX inquiry against a school, but refuses to release the actual complaint so outsiders can see the specifics.
Despite the record, OCR concluded that MSU had violated Title IX in its handling of Student A’s case, because the university took too long to conclude that Student A’s allegations were unfounded. This delay in initiating an investigation (based on a complaint the accuser never filed with the school) violated Title IX. OCR also expressed concerns about the structure of MSU’s policies, which at the time “required that a disciplinary hearing be conducted by the student judicial body before any action could be taken against a student accused of sexual harassment.” But the agency didn’t find a Title IX violation here, since by the time of the resolution letter, the disciplinary hearing requirement (which should, in fact, be an obvious form of due process) had been eviscerated.
To reiterate: Student A’s allegations proved unfounded, and she never filed a complaint through the university process.
The Campus Climate
As described in the resolution letter, Michigan State is a university whose leadership is obsessed with sexual assault. (According to Clery Act figures, there were 27 reported sexual assaults in 2013 at MSU, from an enrollment of about 35,000 students.) In 2013, the university initiated what it called a “No Excuse for Sexual Assault” campaign, designed in part, according to the OCR letter, “to debunk common myths regarding sexual assault.” MSU “distributed posters with images and messages intended to dispel various myths regarding sexual assault”; handed out shirts, stickers, buttons, and brochures with the slogan at various university events; developed a “No Excuse” Facebook page; created a special help line for students who wanted to report a sexual assault; and translated all of these materials into different languages—including Korean, Arabic, and Chinese. Students interviewed by OCR recalled these initiatives, along with material from the two required training sessions on sexual assault directed at all incoming students. (Athletes receive additional training.)
It appears that MSU’s training is creating some myths, rather than dispelling them. In a survey of all first-year and transfer students, 74.9 percent (incorrectly) said it was “false” that “someone can still give consent for sex if they are using alcohol or drugs.”
Yet to OCR, at Michigan State, a “sexually hostile environment existed for and affected numerous students,” while “the University’s failure to address complaints of sexual harassment, including sexual violence, in a prompt and equitable manner caused and may have contributed to a continuation of this sexually hostile environment.” The agency seemed troubled by findings (from campus surveys) that students would be more likely to report sexual assault to the police than to the university office that handles college investigations—as if, somehow, this is a bad thing. The resolution letter also went out of its way to include extraneous comments from random students: “OCR heard,” for instance, that a student had reported being raped at a fraternity shortly before the investigator came to campus. Well: Had she? Though this information presumably would have been very easy to ascertain, OCR investigators seemed uninterested in finding out. Another: “Many students referenced a walkway on campus near the river (the river trail) as being routinely referred to by students as the ‘rape trail.” This sounds ominous, until OCR informs us that this reputation dated from events in the 1970s or 1980s—that is, before 99.99 percent of MSU’s current undergrads were born.
Finally, OCR considered it a sign of a troubled campus culture that “only 7.4% of students were able to correctly identify the name of the University’s Title IX Coordinator,” while “71.5% of the students surveyed correctly identified the University’s head basketball coach.” That this churlish item made it into an official letter from a federal agency is astonishing. Given that miniscule percentages of students know the identities of even high-ranking academic bureaucrats, I wonder how many students know the name of the MSU provost, or the dean of the humanities (who are, after all, a far more appropriate comparison group for the Title IX coordinator). It’s remarkable, in fact, that according to the survey, around 2000 MSU students know the name of a mid-level bureaucrat at their university.
And what of the language that “71.5% of the students surveyed correctly identified the University’s head basketball coach”? Michigan State actually has two head basketball coaches: Tom Izzo, longtime coach of the men’s basketball team (including in 2000, when his team won the national title); and Suzy Merchant, who in her eighth year has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best women’s basketball coaches. The 71.5 percent figure obviously refers to Izzo; by describing the university has having only one basketball coach, OCR—the agency devoted to gender nondiscrimination in athletics—chose to overlook the women’s basketball coach to make its political point.
In early 2012, during the course of the investigation, MSU abandoned its previous policy (which required a hearing) that vexed OCR, and replaced it with a modified version of the single- investigator model. Student allegations of sexual assault are directed to the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives (or “I3”). A I3 investigator speaks with the accuser, accused, and any other relevant witnesses, looks at any evidence the two sides present, and then produces a report deciding whether it’s more like than not that the accused is a rapist. The accused student has no opportunity to cross-examine his accuser—indeed, he doesn’t even see the evidence compiled against him until the investigator produces his report.
Once the I3 investigator produces his report, the accused student can appeal to a hearing—but under very circumscribed conditions. At the hearing, the OCR’s resolution letter noted, “neither side can ask questions of each other”’—and the accused student now has the burden of proof, a burden that goes well beyond the preponderance of evidence. He must “show that the I3 decision was arbitrary and capricious or had procedural problems.”
Such a one-sided procedure unsurprisingly has produced one-sided results. The OCR letter reported that MSU administrators indicated “that they have not yet had a case where the administrator or hearing board believed that the respondent met his or her burden of proof.”
In more than three years, then, MSU’s procedure has never resulted in an accused student being found not culpable once an investigator has decided otherwise.
OCR’s response? Michigan State procedures tilt too heavily—in favor of the accused. The agency found “that the University has not provided a prompt and equitable grievance procedure for the resolution of student and employee complaints alleging any actions prohibited by Title IX.” Investigations, OCR sniffed, take too long—at 90 days, with an additional 30 days to write.
OCR also faulted MSU’s policies for failing to unequivocally state that “the University will take steps to minimize the burden on the victim” regarding “interim measures while the investigation is pending.” But, of course, while “the investigation is pending,” there is no victim—the allegation is alleged, not established.
Unlike the SMU and SUNY letters, the Michigan State resolution letter doesn’t explicitly endorse any new, troubling policies. But it sends a most troubling message: even a university with MSU’s one-sided campus climate, and with MSU’s one-sided policies, will be found in violation of Title IX by the current OCR.