In November of 2018, the Department of Education (DOE) outlined a set of proposed modifications to Title IX regarding sexual misconduct on college campuses. These changes represent a major rollback from Obama-era policies that introduced more rights to victims of sexual harassment and assault. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has stated that under the new policies, she aims to enhance the due process of the accused student while limiting the liability of the university. But what exactly does this mean for Tulane?
Some significant proposed changes include a narrower definition of sexual harassment and limiting a college or university’s jurisdiction for investigating any assault that occurs off-campus. For example, if a student is sexually assaulted or raped at an off-campus fraternity house, a school would not be required to investigate the incident. The DOE, however, has given universities the option to investigate these incidents if the school’s Code of Conduct allows them to do so, which Tulane’s does. If this policy were to go into effect, Tulane would create a separate system to adjudicate off-campus assault, ensuring that all victims are heard.
A growing concern about the new policies regards the conversation surrounding sexual assault on campus. Tulane has made enormous strides in addressing the issue through initiatives like Wave of Change, but they will need to make sure their mission stays on track despite the proposed changes.
“I think the conversation around sexual misconduct will focus on how differently this iteration of the Department of Education views this subject. If put into place, we are looking at some substantial changes,” said Meredith Smith, Tulane’s Assistant Provost for Title IX and Clery Compliance.
In January of 2018, Tulane released the results of a campus climate survey on sexual misconduct. The response was quite startling, as it reported that 41% of undergraduate women and 18% of undergraduate men had experienced sexual assault while at Tulane. The school stated that the survey and Wave of Change initiative aimed to inform the community on the issue of sexual assault while preventing future incidents – by addressing the problem head-on.
Betsy DeVos claims, however, that colleges and universities have adopted a “guilty until proven innocent” attitude when investigating sexual assault. She believes the current system has been unfairly harsh toward the students accused of committing sexual assault and hopes that changing Title IX would restore their power. A proposed modification would give these students the right to cross-examine their accuser through a lawyer or advisor. This would effectively turn universities into courtrooms, which Meredith Smith believes is not in the best interest for any parties involved.
“I absolutely believe this will have a negative impact on reporting, not just because reporting students don’t want to be cross-examined by attorneys, but that they will likely need to hire attorneys themselves to conduct cross-examination, too. The more adversarial and courtroom- like our system is, the worse it is for all students. We are trying to gather information, not put students on trial,” Smith said.
Because nothing has been implemented yet, it’s difficult to see how the Department of Education’s proposed policies would manifest on college campuses. However, it’s important to understand how these changes might affect our community and the way that we address sexual violence. Tulane is committed to ending sexual misconduct both on and off campus and will ensure that all students receive equal support and respect.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, call (504) 654-9543 to speak privately with a member of SAPHE or (504) 865-5911 for TUPD.
COVER PHOTO: Bianca Falanga