BY AVA BLUM-CARR ’21
The recent announcement that the Department of Education has rescinded and replaced the Title IX guidelines put forth by the Obama administration marks a significant change in the way colleges are required to address sexual misconduct on campus. Nevertheless, Mount Holyoke’s policy remains unchanged.
On Sept. 22, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos issued a new set of guidelines for colleges in how they must comply with the Title IX law against sexual discrimination in education, simultaneously rolling back the 2011 and 2014 mandates of the previous administration.
These guidelines provide institutions of higher education with an official process for responding to accusations of campus sexual assault. According to Politico, this will not result in immediate alteration of most colleges’ policies regarding sexual misconduct.
“Please know that your safety and well-being is our priority, and that we remain committed to Mount Holyoke’s current Title IX policy prohibiting gender and sex-based discrimination of any kind, including sexual misconduct,” said Acting President Sonya Stephens in a statement following the announcement by Devos.
The new mandate removes the pressure on colleges to continue adhering to guidelines presented by the Obama administration in 2011. This document, known as the “Dear Colleague” letter, set a standard for evidence presented by victims of alleged assault that differed from traditional criminal court proceedings. Instead of relying completely on the principle that accused persons are innocent until proven guilty, it gave the testimony of victims more credence.
This concept is referred to as “preponderance of evidence” and allowed that allegations made by victims were “more likely than not” to be true. Devos’ new guidelines allow colleges to choose the standard of evidence they require in cases of campus assault, meaning they can opt to verify the testimony of victims on the basis of “clear and convincing evidence” only.
According to Devos, this new guidance will continue to help schools combat sexual misconduct. “The process must also be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes,” said Devos. However, Inside Higher Ed reported that many advocates for sexual assault survivors say that the new policy places greater importance on protecting the rights of those accused of assault rather than the rights of the victims themselves.
“All colleges, regardless of their status as co-ed colleges or women’s colleges, must regard Title IX with the utmost seriousness,” said Lenore Reilly, Mount Holyoke’s interim Title IX coordinator.
According to Politico, another facet of the new guidelines puts far greater pressure on victims of campus assault to reveal their identities before those accused can be subjected to questioning. In a society in which campus sexual assault very frequently goes unreported, the new protocol could further discourage victims from coming forward by compromising their right to anonymity.
According to Inside Higher Ed, the Devos document is regarded by many as a step backwards, especially by those who have long fought for the protection of victims of sexual violence on college campuses. At the very least, Mount Holyoke students can rest assured that these protections will remain in place on their own campus.
President Sonya Stephens concluded her statement with a staunch reaffirmation of these principles. “Sexual violence disproportionately affects women and gender minorities, and our policies offer protections, rights, and processes by which we stand,” she said. “At this time, then, this policy remains in effect and is unchanged by the new guidance.”