If you’re still wondering whether or not our bear-obsessed education secretary Betsy DeVos has any idea what she’s doing, her speech today on Title IX and campus rape offers a pretty clear answer. That answer, by the way, is no.
DeVos had been widely expected to use her speech today at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, to announce a rollback of the Obama administration’s guidance on how colleges should deal with accusations of rape. And she did, declaring the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter — requiring that colleges take rape accusations more seriously — basically null and void.
“Instead of working with schools on behalf of students, the prior administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students,” DeVos declared. “Rather than inviting everyone to the table, the Department insisted it knew better than those who walk side-by-side with students every day. That will no longer be the case. The era of ‘rule by letter’ is over.”
While the bluntness of her language may have surprised some listeners, DeVos’s distaste for Obama’s approach to campus rape has not exactly been a secret. During her confirmation, critics noted that she and her husband had donated $10,000 to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group then actively campaigning against the “Dear Colleague” letter.
And then there was her infamous meeting this summer with several fringe men’s-rights groups, including one that has suggested as many as 90 percent of rape accusations are false (most experts think the real rate is somewhere between 2 and 10 percent) and another that recently published an article arguing that the “real reason” Democrats opposed DeVos so vociferously is that “[t]hey did not want to lose their most powerful weapon against men — false sexual abuse allegations.”
The “Dear Colleague” letter that caused so much wailing and gnashing of teeth among men’s-rights activists, conservatives, and libertarians was a policy statement from the Office for Civil Rights in the Education Department reminding college administrators that they have an obligation under Title IX to actively pursue rape cases and punish offenders in order to keep their school from becoming a hostile environment for women.
Especially controversial was the letter’s insistence that schools judge the merit of rape accusations by a “preponderance of evidence” standard rather than the more demanding “clear and convincing evidence” standard some had adopted for their campus rape tribunals. While “preponderance of evidence” is the standard in civil cases, critics say the lowered standard has deprived college men (and the occasional accused woman) of “due process,” turning college disciplinary proceedings into “kangaroo courts.” (Never mind that college tribunals are not courts of any kind, and college administrators cannot sentence anyone to prison.)
Critics of the policy have often indulged in rhetoric only a step or two away from pure hysteria. A recent post on RedState took aim at “Obama’s Fascist Sex Abuse Investigation Guidelines,” denounced the supposed “weaponization of … administrative agencies” and complained that Department of Education–mandated “star chambers” were giving “marginally educated social justice warriors … a hunting license to pursue male students and harry them from campus on the flimsiest of evidence … or even no evidence at all.”
In men’s-rights circles, meanwhile, paranoia about these so-called star chambers has metastasized to such an extent that some college-age MRAs claim they’ve sworn off college women entirely. “[D]on’t talk to women on campus unless its about school/work/emergency,” one MRA urged his colleagues in one discussion in the Men’s Rights subreddit. “[V]ideorecord all your activities, even sex acts, using bodycam.” Apparently this advice-giver is unaware that most people have sex sans clothing, and that it is hard to hide a bodycam on a naked body.
In her speech today, DeVos echoed much of this overblown rhetoric — denouncing “kangaroo courts,” lamenting what she called “weaponiz[ation] of the Office for Civil Rights,” declaring that the supposed “unraveling of justice” on campuses “is shameful, it is wholly un-American, and it is anathema to the system of self-governance to which our Founders pledged their lives over 240 years ago.”
So what does DeVos propose as a replacement for this “failed system?” She’s got nothing.
That’s right. After torpedoing the “Dear Colleague” letter, she offers college administrators precisely zero guidance on how the Department of Education expects them to fulfill their Title IX responsibilities. Indeed, at one point, she seems to suggest that providing colleges with any kind of guidance is somehow anathema to democracy itself, complaining that “[f]or too long, rather than engage the public on controversial issues, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights has issued letters from the desks of unelected and unaccountable political appointees.”
If she has a plan, she doesn’t want us to know what it is. Instead of guidance, DeVos offers only a promise that her department “will launch a transparent notice-and-comment process to incorporate the insights of all parties in developing a better way.”
So the era of “rule by letter” is over, but the “better way” is yet to come. What exactly are college administrators expected to do in the in-between days? More to the point: What are victims of sexual assault on college campuses supposed to do?
Betsy DeVos literally has no answer.