A major survey sponsored by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and conducted by YouGov shows that college students—2225 were surveyed in late January or early February, from two- and four-year institutions— strongly support due process for accused students facing Title IX tribunals. Indeed, the gap between the policies that would flow from these numbers and the actual policies of most institutions is astonishing. Nonetheless, the figures also show some troubling underlying patterns that deserve monitoring.
The survey was completed last February when 2,225 students from two and four-year institutions participated.
First, the top-line figures: By a more than 4-to-1 margin, students believe that a college system must ensure that the accused student is presumed innocent. Seven in ten believe that the accused student should have the right to a lawyer who can speak in the hearing. (Most colleges deny this right.)
Nearly nine in ten favor the accused student getting written notice; three in four say the accused student should have the right to challenge panelists for bias. Most students believe that accused students should have the right to look at all evidence, and only 27 percent said they favored the “single investigator” model—in which a single person serves as judge, jury, investigator, and prosecutor. The model is ripe for abuse; its problems are best demonstrated by the infamous sexual assault case at Brandeis.
By an overwhelming margin (84-16), students consider the purpose of campus disciplinary tribunals to be punitive, not educational. They’re right, of course. But the argument that these tribunals—which in the Title IX context can carry life-long, and life-altering, consequences for a student found guilty—are solely “educational” is often used by schools as an excuse for unfair procedures.
In short, despite years of rhetoric from Obama administration officials that framed fair treatment of accused student as an obstacle to campus safety, support for basic procedural protections for the accused student is robust. That’s the good news.
There’s some more troubling news in the survey, however. First, and most important: FIRE broke down the survey into three topics—one-third of the students were asked about procedural rights when a student is accused of violating unspecified rules. One-third was asked about drinking infractions. And one third was asked about sexual misconduct. The results showed that students (albeit by only a few percentage points) consistently showed less support for procedural protections when the accused faced the most serious charge possible on campus—sexual misconduct.
Second: the numbers revealed signs of ideological polarization—though only on sexual misconduct questions. Consider, for instance, the attitudes of very liberal, liberal, and even moderate students. These students all strongly supported allowing students accused of “breaking a rule” to look through all the evidence against them. But substantially fewer of these students (anywhere from 11 to 23 percent fewer) want to grant that right to students accused of sexual assault—an approach that would basically require accused students to defend themselves without much of a chance of winning.
Similarly, more than 80 percent of very liberal students believe that the disciplinary panel should be unanimous before expelling a student for breaking a rule or for an alcohol offense. That number plunges to under 60 percent, however, for students accused of sexual assault. So, it’s particularly liberal or very liberal students who are saying that students accused of the most serious offenses should have fewer protections. There was no meaningful difference between the categories among conservative students.
Still, a majority even of very liberal students support procedural protections for accused students in Title IX tribunals on these matters.
Finally: in two areas, a majority of the students surveyed by FIRE do not support meaningful procedural protections for accused students. Only 48 percent of students overall favored allowing students accused of sexual assault to have copies of all evidence against them. (A slight majority supported allowing the students to look at the evidence, but it’s a major obstacle to mounting a defense if the university doesn’t let the accused student possess the evidentiary file against him.) And only 19 percent of students opposed double-jeopardy principles in sexual assault cases, with 63 percent endorsing a system in which an accuser can appeal a not-guilty finding.
Despite some troubling findings, the overall message here is positive: a broader agenda supporting due process on campus likely would generate significant student support.