Imminent new sexual assault rules divide US campuses

Universities concede societal push to handle delicate matters in more legalistic ways

December 16, 2019
Source: Reuters

US universities are divided over a pending Trump administration rule that would force campus sexual assault victims to endure questioning from representatives of their alleged attackers.

The idea has generated significant opposition from universities, including their main lobby group, largely over concerns that an openly confrontational process would discourage traumatised victims from reporting assaults.

But as the date of implementation draws near, some university leaders are acknowledging that opposition to the move is waning and that many campus officials are resigned to the fact that the more collegial processes within academia are likely growing outdated.

“In an era where everything is becoming more and more litigious,” Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University, told Times Higher Education, “I think we’re going to be moving more towards the legal standard. It just looks that way to me.”

Professor Becker was among several university presidents debating the issue at an event in New York hosted by Arizona State University, which came as the US Education Department nears completion of a year-long process of drafting changes to Title IX, the regulation covering sexual discrimination and assaults at institutions in receipt of federal money.

The education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has made clear her intention to treat seriously and fairly not only sexual assault victims but also those whom they accuse.

Another participant in the round-table discussion, Kim Wilcox, chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, expressed general sympathy for that position. Professor Wilcox said Obama administration rule changes on the topic had also generated “a fair amount of consternation, about the fact that the rules had gone too far the other way”.

“This is another of these political middle spaces where it’s hard to define – there’s not a right answer,” he said.

Campus sexual assault claims are typically adjudicated by university officials outside formal legal settings. The Trump administration’s planned changes would toughen standards of evidence for any campus-based processes and allow a hearing in which the accuser could face questions from a lawyer or other representative of the alleged attacker.

Critics of the move include the American Council on Education, the main US higher education advocacy organisation, which envisages the administration’s pending change as allowing “a highly paid legal pit bull to grill another student”.

During a consultation period, the administration received about 100,000 public responses to its proposal. Most expressed opposition to the plan.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire) is supportive of the planned changes, noting that an accuser could be safely questioned from a remote location via a video connection.

Currently, said Susan Kruth, a programme officer at Fire, hearing examiners hired by colleges too often omitted questions that could be valuable to the accused.

But Joseph Castro, president of California State University, Fresno, told the ASU event of cases that included two women who declined to participate in such an investigative cross-examination and were then left to return to campus with the man whom both had accused of assaulting them.

Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington, said her institution intended to do all it could to avoid confrontational cross-examinations, explaining that even now sexual assault victims were reluctant to come forward. Yet once the rule changes are imposed, Professor Cauce conceded, “we will have to re-examine our policies and see what, if any, changes might be necessary”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Perhaps it is better for universities to step back and let law enforcement and the courts determine the truth of the matter when one student accuses another of sexual assault. That's part of their job, after all, not what universities are there for!

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