Comparing Seven Key Changes in DeVos’ Title IX Proposal

Betsy DeVos

The long-awaited new regulations on campus sexual misconduct, expected to be fairer toward the accused than the Obama-era Title IX guidance policies they will replace, were leaked to The New York Times and appeared there in part on August 29.

Unfortunately, The Times did not post the draft guidelines, due from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But I thought it might be worthwhile to compare what we know of the guidelines—from published reports and from my discussions with a source who has seen the proposed regulations—with the Obama-era guidance dating from 2011.

TITLE IX OVERVIEW

Obama-era guidance: Every substantive provision of the guidance increased the likelihood that a student accused of sexual assault or sexual harassment would be found guilty. Based on the specifics of the guidance, the remarks of the President and Vice President, and the actions of OCR head Catherine Lhamon, the administration saw the law as requiring schools to adopt accuser-friendly policies, even if those policies led to unfair procedures. For example, in the document, “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence,” Lhamon says, “Specifically, OCR’s standards require that the conduct be evaluated from the perspective of a reasonable person in the alleged victim’s position.” That perspective led to the elimination of due process for the accused, which was replaced with Title IX Tribunals or the single-investigator process.

DeVos regulations: According to The Times, the regulations contain a clause making clear that Title IX requires fairness for both parties, and that policies or actions strongly biased against the accused could constitute gender discrimination in violation of Title IX.

Practical effect: It’s very unlikely that rhetorical pressure will prompt universities to adjudicate sexual assault allegations more fairly. But this clause—if accepted by the courts—could have a significant effect in litigation. Already, 2018 decisions in lawsuits by accused students against Marymount, Johnson & Wales, and Ole Miss have seen judges suggest that unfair policies can violate Title IX.

Related: 5 Myths and Outright Lies About Campus Sexual Assault

TRAINING

Obama-era guidance: Ordered all schools to train not merely investigators but adjudicators. Specifically required adjudicators to be trained in “the importance of accountability for individuals found to have committed sexual violence” and “the effects of trauma, including neurobiological change.” The small number of training materials that have been made public have featured troublingly one-sided content—such as recent training material from Ole Miss, which guided panelists to believe that an accuser lying is a sign of the accused student’s guilt.

DeVos regulations: Interim guidance (2017) required training that avoided sex stereotypes; presumably a similar clause will appear in the new regulations. The proposed regulations also require training about the regulations and the campus policies. And they order schools to divulge the contents of the training to any accused student who asks for them.

Practical effect: This provision is perhaps the most significant of any in the regulations. Training materials have been notoriously one-sided; by introducing a degree of sunlight to the process, the regulations hopefully will encourage schools to create fairer training materials. And if they don’t, the contents of one-sided training will prove useful in any subsequent lawsuits.

EXCULPATORY EVIDENCE

Obama-era guidance: Imposed no requirements on colleges to share exculpatory evidence with the accused student, nor to document any exculpatory evidence that a Title IX investigator might have uncovered.

DeVos regulations: The interim guidance said a school’s “investigation should result in a written report summarizing the relevant exculpatory and inculpatory evidence.” [emphasis added] The regulations appear to contain similar language, which would require the school to share exculpatory information.

Practical effect: The policy change is night and day. The question, as always, will be whether colleges will comply with the spirit of the regulation, which seems quite unlikely. But, again, once an accused student’s lawsuit gets to court, the university would need to explain why it ignored a federal mandate for basic fairness.

Related: Double Standards in NYU Sex Abuse Case

FRAMING OF POLICY

Obama-era guidance: The 2011 Dear Colleague letter included the claim that millions of female undergraduates (1 in 5) would be sexual assault victims while enrolled at school. President Obama made a similar claim. The crackdown on rights of the accused was implicitly justified on the grounds of responding to this epidemic of campus violent crime. In 2017, a close Obama ally, Washington Senator Patty Murray, justified the policies because they would increase the chances of campus victims filing a report.

DeVos regulations: It’s unclear how much (if any) of DeVos’ rhetoric will appear in the regulations. But she has repeatedly made clear that just as one rape on campus is one rape too many, so too is one innocent student denied due process.

STANDARD OF PROOF

Obama-era guidance: Demanded that all schools use a preponderance of evidence (50.01 percent) standard.

DeVos regulations: Allows schools to choose between using a preponderance and a clear-and-convincing (around 75 percent) standard. Requires schools to use a clear-and-convincing standard if they do so for other civil rights-related cases.

Practical effect: No change. DeVos’ interim guidance (September 2017) gave schools the option of creating fairer systems by using a clear-and-convincing standard. As far as I know, not a single institution in the country accepted her invitation. It’s hard to imagine any will do so now; any university president who made such a choice doubtless would be attacked as a rape apologist. It’s possible, however, that this provision could have some effect in lawsuits by accused students since universities would no longer be able to claim that OCR ordered them to use a preponderance standard. In 2018, two judges (Martinez and Jordan) have expressed concerns about the fairness of the preponderance standard in a due process claim.

Related: Yale’s Sex Abuse Report Is a Fabrication

DOUBLE-JEOPARDY PRINCIPLES

Obama-era guidance: Demanded that all schools that use an appeals process (as the overwhelming majority do) also allow accusers to appeal not-guilty findings.

DeVos regulations: Allows schools to choose between allowing only accused students to appeal and allowing both parties to appeal, thereby requiring the accused student to prove his innocence twice when the initial panel returns a not-guilty finding.

Practical effect: Minimal change. DeVos’ interim guidance (September 2017) gave schools the option of creating fairer systems by eliminating double-jeopardy principles. As far as I know, only the University of Kentucky has accepted her invitation. It’s possible, however, that this provision could have some effect in lawsuits by accused students since universities would no longer be able to blame the unfair policy on federal orders. Several lawsuits (Michigan, Michigan State, Coastal Carolina) have involved unfair actions by campus appeals boards.

CROSS-EXAMINATION

Obama-era guidance: “Strongly” discouraged schools from permitting an accused student from directly cross-examining his accuser. Since most schools also prohibited the lawyer for an accused student from questioning the witness, this effectively meant that OCR discouraged all cross-examination. There was no other mention of the concept in its guidance.

DeVos regulations: Recognizes the importance of cross-examination in determining the truth. Requires schools that use hearings to permit some form of questioning of the accuser, but doesn’t require allowing a lawyer or an advocate for the accused to conduct that questioning. Doesn’t require schools to hold hearings at all; according to Robby Soave’s reporting, requires an “effective substitute” to cross-examination for schools that use the single-investigator model. The regulations do not appear to explain how the single-investigator process, which is explicitly designed to eliminate cross-examination, could replicate the benefits of cross-examination.

Practical effect: Rhetorically, this is a 180-degree shift from the Obama-era guidance—from seeing cross-examination as something to be discouraged to seeing it as something necessary for fairness and truth-seeking. Practically, however, universities that want to retain their guilt-presuming systems will be able to do so. Schools that use hearings can continue to forbid lawyers from speaking and instead, funnel questions for the accuser and other witnesses through the panel (which won’t be required to ask them). More problematically, the regulation’s framing likely will generate strong pressure from accusers’ rights organizations and their political and media allies for colleges to abandon hearings altogether in sexual misconduct cases, and adopt the single-investigator model in their stead. Resisting this pressure will require a degree of courage largely absent from university presidents during the debate over campus due process.

On this issue, courts will need to safeguard the rights of the accused, at least at public institutions. Recent rulings in lawsuits against Michigan and Penn State, and the 2017 Sixth Circuit ruling in Cincinnati made clear that courts understand the importance of some form of cross-examination to the due process clause’s promises of fairness. Students at private institutions, who lack this constitutional protection, will be out of luck on this matter unless they can position their unfair treatment as a violation of Title IX.

Overall, the proposed regulations appear to represent a good-faith effort to create a fairer system. But they’ll doubtless meet with furious resistance from many universities, and the question then will become whether OCR—or the courts—will be willing to enforce them.

KC Johnson

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.

6 thoughts on “Comparing Seven Key Changes in DeVos’ Title IX Proposal

  1. I would like to see a provision that prevented schools from increasing the punishment in the appeals phase (IIRC this happened at UCSD). The accused person should not have to weigh the risk of his or her punishment becoming harsher in the decision of whether or not to appeal.

  2. Dear Dr. Johnson,

    As an innocent victim (Professor) of an Obama-era Title IX investigation, I support the restoration of constitutional principles to campus sexual misconduct proceedings. I have the following comments.

    1) Consistency: The new rules should not allow wiggle room. It is intrinsically unfair, for example, that: a) the evidentiary standards could be different among universities; b) that schools only “should” require written reports of exculpatory evidence; c) that appeals by either complainant or respondent are optional and at the discretion of individual universities/colleges; and 4) that rules guiding cross-examination of the accuser might also be by preference of the university.
    2) Fairness: There are two problems here. The investigators and the adjudicators report to the university administration, and these powerful folks have political agendas and can manipulate the investigation to favor whomever they want. At my university, the Dean’s Office repeatedly hijacked Title IX to clobber faculty for whom they harbored a grudge, and there was no accountability. Let’s be clear that these university functionaries report to the university and that their livelihoods depend on pleasing their superiors. Second, to repeat a recent George Will quote, these Title IX administrators have “vocational incentives to discover offenses that justify their offices.” Furthermore, they are incentivized to find guilty verdicts because innocence is not an attractive tool in the armamentarium to combat sexual misconduct or violence. I would support a system that eliminates campus tribunals in favor of regional offices immune to campus political pressures.
    3) The DeVos regulations should contain clear and strong language that the accused is entitled to know the charges against her/him, entitled to bring forth evidence on his/her behalf, entitled to have witnesses, and entitled to defend him/herself as he or she deems fit. These basic constitutional and civil rights were denied to me throughout my prosecution.

    If the new DeVos regulations had been in place during my prosecution, there would have been no case and no investigation, and I would still be employed.

  3. If these assaults, attacks, crimes happen off campus, they are reported, investigated, and lead to proper procedures of due process. Just because they happen on campus, policy should be no different. A “criminal” should not be just kicked out of school to go free to commit the same crime elsewhere. This mockery of law is a double-sided fallacy.

  4. California Appeals Court ruled against Claremont MCKenna College on its August 8th ruling to allow cross examination in cases that was judged on credibility.

  5. First, even if DeVos is able to get the Regional Offices to comply (which I highly doubt), I fear that these changes will be, at best, a Pyrrhic victory.

    Reality is that most colleges and universities have adopted some form of the Behavioral Intervention Team model — secretive star chambers where “students of concern” are evaluated in absentia with all subsequent administrative proceedings being pro forma toward the predetermined finding and sanction.

    The Behavioral Intervention Team model is based on an axis of insanity versus sanity and not the guilt versus innocence, evidence-based axis that we are inclined to think of. Hence the approach is therapeutic rather than punitive, but even more it is a rather paranoid desire to protect the institution from all possible harm (or at least bad press).

    Hence the concern is not “if he did it or not”, but instead fears of what he might do in the future. Hence the accuser is not a victim but a reporter — the institution is being told that he might be sexually dangerous and the actual facts which serve as the basis of the report are largely irrelevant. It truly doesn’t matter if he did it or not — the spineless administrators (admittedly) seek to have a “zero tolerance of risk”. Hence the institution is better off without the risk of permitting him to remain He needs to be removed, for the greater good of the collective.

    Remember that the Behavioral Intervention Teams are based on a mental health and not a due process basis — neither individual rights nor due process are relevant concerns.

    Hence the Kampus Kangaroo Korts often don’t make sense because they aren’t engaged in fact-finding, in most cases the findings (and sentence) has already been determined several levels higher in the administration and it’s really nothing more than Kabuki theater intended to conceal that fact from the student and his supporters.

    Knowing this, my fear is that if we shut down the Kampus Kangaroo Korts — or even clean them up — we will win little more than a Pyrrhic victory. There are a thousand different ways to get rid of a student if you want to — anyone who’s ever worked in a campus administration knows this and probably has seen it done more than once. Unless we address the underlying issue of the star-chamber BITs, these falsely accused students will still find themselves out of the institution and unable to graduate — a distinction without a difference.

    Even worse, we may see a further shift toward the mental illness model that the Behavioral Intervention Teams already represent. It is shockingly easy to label a student “mentally ill” and it is virtually impossible for the student to prove otherwise — that’s why the person making the allegation has historically had the burden of proof. And hence the issue is not the allegations that the woman makes against the man but the mere fact that she’s making them.

    Because she is reporting him as being sexually dangerous….

    *There is an OCR Regional Office corresponding to each Federal Appellate Circuit.

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