In a Nov. 16 press release, the U.S. Department of Education proposed significant modifications to its existing Title IX regulations, the set of rules prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs that receive federal financial support. These proposed regulatory amendments come over 14 months after the Department of Education unveiled interim Title IX guidance that rolled back 2011 guidelines issued by the Obama administration, though those interim changes did not immediately affect the University’s Title IX policies.
Procedures for modifying government policy often seem like impenetrable technobabble, but we cannot overstate how much the fate of federal action on Title IX will affect the day-to-day lives and welfare of all members of the Brown community — students, faculty and staff alike. The DOE has afforded 60 days for public comment on its proposals, and the University has committed to soliciting feedback as part of its review of those new rules. In a community-wide email sent Nov. 16, President Christina Paxson P ’19 wrote that the University “anticipate(s) making comments — alone and/or with peer institutions — on any aspects of the regulations that might make our processes less fair and effective, or hinder our ability to support Brown community members who have experienced sexual harassment or assault.” In these 60 days, students at Brown have a vital opportunity to influence the trajectory of federal education policy, the implementation of Title IX policies on campus and civil rights outcomes on College Hill.
At a town hall held Thursday evening, students raised concerns about the ways in which the DOE’s proposed rule changes will affect the execution of Title IX policies across several dimensions. As The Herald previously reported, the rules will permit universities to use a “clear and convincing” standard of evidence — a higher bar than the “preponderance of evidence” standard allowed by the previous administration — when adjudicating cases of sexual assault. Further, the proposal will “adopt a clear definition of sexual harassment” and restrict universities’ ability to intervene only when alleged violations occur in their own “education program(s) or activities,” per the factsheet published by the DOE. Under these new rules, the DOE will also compel universities to presume innocence for the duration of the adjudication process, refrain from employing a single-investigator model and permit live hearings and cross-examinations of survivors.
Several national organizations and prominent individuals have criticized the DOE’s proposal. The American Civil Liberties Union stated that the rules would promote “an unfair process, inappropriately favoring the accused.” Janet Napolitano, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that, in proposing its new rules, the DOE “is mistaken.”
As the University works to craft an institutional response to the changes, Rene Davis, the University’s Title IX program officer, said that the administration will “consult with constituents across campus to review the guidance proposed and take in initial feedback.” The review process will include open forums and an electronic comment box that will be made available to students soon. At Thursday’s town hall, Davis recommended that students, in addition to attending town halls and submitting comments electronically to the University, also visit the Federal Register and submit their comments to the DOE directly. We urge students to take full advantage of these avenues for feedback. While the 60-day comment period coincides with winter break — unideal circumstances for generating widespread public engagement — the cost of complacence, indifference and inaction is too high. According to its Annual Outcome Report, the University Office of Title IX and Gender Equity received 59 reports of sexual misconduct for the 2016-2017 school year. Across the country, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an anti-sexual violence organization, finds that 11.2 percent of students (and 23.1 percent of female undergraduates) experience some kind of sexual violence.
We hope that, in the coming days, the University’s electronic comment form will be introduced and distributed widely. We also hope that the dates of future community forums, where the implications of the DOE’s revised Title IX guidance can be discussed, will be fixed soon and heavily publicized by the University. And we hope that students are able to set aside just a few minutes of their day, in this hectic season of finals and holidays, to provide feedback. The federal government will only accept comments until Jan. 28, 2019, which gives students around the nation just 52 days to express their views. But, altogether, every comment submitted, every voice raised and town hall attended, can make a difference in the process of amending existing Title IX policy — in the effort to make sure that all students at American universities are treated with equal dignity under the law.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19, Rhaime Kim ’20, Grace Layer ’20, Mark Liang ’19 and Krista Stapleford ’21. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.