55 Schools the Feds Will Investigate

To great fanfare, the Education Department released a list of 55 colleges and universities that the OCR is investigating for allegedly violating Title IX in their treatment of sexual assault issues. Though Education Secretary Arne Duncan said there’s “absolutely zero” presumption of guilt in the list’s release, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that principles of transparency alone did not account for the administration’s move. The list can be used to intensify the impression of an “epidemic” of sexual assaults on campus, and thereby boost popular and political support for the Task Force/OCR joint call for reducing due process rights to students on campuses around the country.

The Education Department’s announcement is clearly newsworthy. But I wish that reporters had presented two questions to administration officials, and provided in their coverage one critical element of context:

Question 1: If, as the administration’s task force claims (based, the Washington Post Fact Checker has revealed, on a low-response internet survey of students at two universities), “One in five women is sexually assaulted in college,” why did the Task Force not recommend a massive (or, indeed, any) increase in law enforcement presence on the nation’s college campuses? What message should the public take from the administration’s apparently contradictory message: that on the one hand, campuses are experiencing an unprecedented wave of violent crime; and on the other, there’s no need for an increased law enforcement role to combat this crime wave?

Question 2: How far will the administration go in the name of transparency? The AP headline, for instance, is “55 US schools face federal sex assault probes.” All that means, of course, is that members of a loosely-coordinated group of activists have filed complaints with OCR. But to an average reader, the headline seems jarring–“sexual assaults,” a commonly understood term, apparently uninvestigated, on 55 campuses. But how many of these 55 colleges actually define “sexual assault” in the way virtually every state’s criminal code does? Or do some or all of these 55 schools define “sexual assault” to include things like a single, drunken grope at a party, or even (such as Yale) as “economic abuse”?

Context: Very, very few readers of the mainstream media (and, it seems, very few politicians) have a clear idea of what an OCR inquiry is, or even what goes on in college sexual assault proceedings. But there are many ongoing OCR inquiries. It would seem that–even if reporters didn’t cover the specifics in their articles–they should familiarize themselves with some of the highest-profile such inquiries.

For instance, OCR is currently investigating Swarthmore–where advocates complain that a process that prohibits the accused student from even mentioning the case to an attorney (much less being represented by one) is actually so unfair to accusers that it constitutes a Title IX violation. Or reporters could look at Occidental–where advocates complain that a process that says a rape can occur even when both parties say “yes” is actually so unfair to accusers that it constitutes a Title IX violation. For good measure, the Oxy inquiry features complainers who are so conspiratorial that they’ve charged (without any evidence) that the administration has authorized break-ins into their offices.

I suspect that such context would dramatically change how the reading public interprets the “55-schools-under-investigation” headline.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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