Joe Biden entered the White House this week with high and wide-ranging expectations from higher education leaders, advocates for survivors of sexual violence and students for how his new administration will require colleges to handle and reduce sexual assault on college campuses.
In addition to addressing the public health and economic consequences of the pandemic, supporting the ongoing movement for social justice and equity for Black Americans, and trying to unite a politically polarized population, President Biden has also promised to strengthen Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded institutions, which mandates how colleges should respond to student reports of sexual misconduct.
Through his time as a senator and vice president, violence against women and the prevalence of sexual assault has remained a “signature issue” and something the president “cares deeply about,” said Shep Melnick, a professor of political science at Boston College and author The Transformation of Title IX: Regulating Gender Equality in Education (Brookings, 2018).
Melnick noted that Biden was a “major factor” in the Obama administration’s emphasis on reducing campus sexual assault. As vice president during that eight-year period, Biden led the administration's It’s On Us campaign and visited colleges to promote awareness of the problem and advocate for prevention strategies, such as bystander intervention, or encouraging and training students, particularly young men, to intervene when they see a classmate in a dangerous situation. He wrote the 1990 Violence Against Women Act, which aimed to protect women from gender-based violence.
Aya Gruber, a law professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who writes about feminism and the criminal justice system, recalled when Biden said, “If a man raised his hand to a woman, you had the job to kick the living crap out of him,” during a White House event promoting men’s involvement in the fight against campus sexual assault.
Protecting women and strongly punishing those who commit sexual violence is “part of Biden’s brand,” Gruber said. His past rhetoric and policy positions on campus sexual assault offer some idea of how Biden’s Department of Education will address the issue. He has so far vowed to “immediately” put an end to the Title IX regulations issued by former secretary of education Betsy DeVos, which dramatically shifted how colleges respond to allegations of sexual misconduct.
The DeVos regulations were incessantly criticized and challenged in court by advocates for survivors of sexual assault, who took issue with mandates for colleges to require students who are opposing parties in sexual misconduct cases to be cross-examined by a third party "advocate" at campus hearings for sexual assault investigations. The regulations also exclude sexual misconduct that occurs off campus from oversight under Title IX and apply a more limited definition of sexual harassment.
Several women’s groups and organizations that support survivors’ rights, such as the advocacy group Know Your IX, want the DeVos regulations gone. They say students who are sexually assaulted or harassed were better off under the 2011 Title IX guidance issued by the Obama administration, when institutions were advised to investigate and adjudicate all reports of sexual misconduct, “regardless of where the conduct occurred.” The guidance, commonly referred to as the 2011 Dear Colleague letter, said that a single incident of sexual harassment could prompt a Title IX investigation and that institutions must use a preponderance of the evidence standard when determining a student or staff member’s guilt.
DeVos rescinded the 2011 guidance during her first months as education secretary in 2017. Biden has pledged to reinstate it. His plan to address violence against women published online says his administration will “restore” the 2011 guidance that “outlined for schools how to fairly conduct Title IX proceedings.”
Biden's campaign website, which details his agenda for women’s issues, says the Education Department under DeVos has “rolled back the clock and given colleges a green light to ignore sexual violence and strip survivors of their civil rights under Title IX, guaranteeing that college campuses will be less safe for our nation’s young people.”
His administration will “stand on the side of survivors, who deserve to have their voices heard, their claims taken seriously and investigated, and their rights upheld,” the comments on the website say.
Civil liberties groups and advocates for the rights of students accused of sexual misconduct are dismayed by Biden's stated intention to reinstate the 2011 guidance. They argue that the guidance led to colleges violating free speech and due process rights. Supporters of the DeVos regulations, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and SAVE, a Washington, D.C., area-based organization that advocates for constitutional protections during college disciplinary proceedings, say the 2011 guidance was grossly unfair.
Edward Bartlett, founder and president of SAVE, said the 2011 guidance was ineffective at reducing sexual misconduct and infringed on student rights. He said the hundreds of federal and state lawsuits filed after the issuance of the 2011 letter prove it did not help those who report sexual misconduct or those accused of it, he said.
Bartlett noted that a Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct by the Association of American Universities found a slight uptick in rates of sexual assault at top colleges between 2015 and 2019, and reporting of incidents remained low throughout this time period. Two surveys were conducted, one in 2015, which involved 27 colleges, and another in 2019, in which 33 colleges participated. The 2019 survey found the overall rate of sexual assault was 13 percent for all students and nearly 26 percent for women undergraduates at those colleges, according to an AAU report about the data. There was a 3 percent increase in the rate of sexual assault among undergraduate women between 2015 and 2019 at the colleges that participated in the surveys, the AAU report said.
“Not only did they find no improvement, they found it got worse,” Bartlett said.
Melnick, the Boston College professor, said the AAU survey and other data available about the prevalence of campus sexual assault are not strong enough to conclude whether or not the 2011 guidance was effective. There isn’t any empirical evidence that suggests that Title IX guidance issued during the Obama administration made the issue worse, he said. But if the Biden administration intends to revert to the former guidance, it may soon have to provide data to support that decision, Melnick said.
“The current debate over evidence -- inconclusive as it is -- will loom larger in the future,” he said in an email.
In the years since the guidance, several federal appeals courts have also struck down parts of the Title IX processes that many colleges developed following the Obama administration’s guidelines, deeming them “unfair” and sometimes discriminatory against men.
Experts who study Title IX and advise institutions on how to implement the law said colleges would be better off if the Department of Education takes a forward-looking approach to combating campus sexual misconduct rather than reverting to the 2011 guidance.
Jake Sapp, a Title IX legal researcher for the Stetson University Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy, said court decisions that favored students accused of sexual misconduct were a direct response to the 2011 guidance, which didn’t set clear standards for due process.
The DeVos regulations rely heavily on these federal court opinions and went through a formal rule-making process that can't simply be revoked, as some advocacy groups for sexual assault survivors are urging Biden to do, Sapp said. Even the most contested item in the DeVos regulations -- the cross-examination requirement -- has been backed by several appeals court decisions and will be applicable to colleges in those judicial circuits even if the Biden administration stops enforcing the regulations, he said.
“The administration can set a regulatory floor, but they can’t build a roof over what the court’s jurisdiction is,” he said. “They can’t say colleges can’t provide this due process protection when a federal court says that you already have to have that.”
Sage Carson, manager of Know Your IX, endorses halting enforcement of the DeVos regulations, but she said the challenges student survivors face have changed significantly in the decade since the 2011 guidance was issued and returning to it isn’t going to effectively address those new challenges.
“Survivors on campus are facing horrendous obstacles to getting support from their school that are nothing like the Obama administration was dealing with,” Carson said. “My fear is that the Biden administration will come in and say, ‘We’ve dealt with this issue before, we know how to do this,’ and not take the time to understand the needs of students right now in this unique moment.”
Carson described obstacles such as a “huge uptick” in students accused of sexual assault filing retaliatory countercomplaints or defamation lawsuits against their accusers. These actions can mean survivors do not receive the support they need from their college or end up in debt from legal fees, she said.
Colleges and students have also been through bouts of “whiplash” as they've had to make policy adjustments based on the political positions of the president in office, Carson said. Some institutions have been consistently “awful” on protecting students from sexual misconduct, but other institutions attempted to comply with the Trump administration’s requirements and experienced “confusion, frustration and a lack of resources,” Carson said.
The lack of clarity and conflicting policies and rhetoric has frustrated students and discouraged some from filing sexual misconduct reports, she said.
“There will be schools that are strained by this back-and-forth,” she said. “To restore confidence in survivors turning to their schools, this administration is going to have to be very transparent about what students can expect … This is going to be a tough, uphill battle.”
Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education, said college administrators recognize that their institutions can’t simply go back to the 2011 guidance. There are new decisions by federal courts that many institutions must follow, new state laws that change how campuses respond to sexual misconduct and resolution agreements between the Education Department and individual colleges that outline how those colleges must improve their Title IX policies and procedures, McDonough said. The DeVos regulations are just one piece of the puzzle, and eliminating them doesn’t change how colleges must deal with sexual misconduct moving forward, he said.
College officials would appreciate “more flexibility” from the Biden administration -- such as guidance that loosens some requirements of the DeVos regulations -- but they also spent months pouring time and energy into adjusting their policies to meet the new standards during the coronavirus pandemic, McDonough said.
“We’re tired,” he said. “Don’t give us one more thing to do this academic year. Let us get our students back to as close as we can to normal.”
The Biden administration should begin the work of creating new Title IX regulations that strike a balance for all sides, including those who experience sexual assault, those accused of it and the college officials that are legally responsible for carrying out the procedures, McDonough said. What college officials are hoping for is a “thoughtful” look at how to amend or replace the DeVos regulations with what all sides feel is the fairest possible process, he said.
“Otherwise we’re going to boomerang for years,” McDonough said. “How are we going to get ourselves, as a broad community, to a place where we feel like what we’ve got is pretty fair? That rhetorical question needs to guide a fair amount of the decision making in this next administration.”
Sapp, who is also deputy Title IX coordinator at Austin College in Sherman, Tex., said Biden and the Education Department officials working under him should not focus on rhetoric painting the DeVos regulations as an “attack on survivors” and listen to more than just one line of thought on the issue. Sapp believes the DeVos regulations are a “good starting point” for Biden to build on, but that the politics surrounding them will deter Biden from publicly recognizing that.
“Part of what Biden has demonstrated is that he’s open to diversity of ideas and thought,” Sapp said. “That needs to be demonstrated in the ideas that he has on Title IX … If you’re going to put forward a Title IX regulation that’s going to stand the test of time, it’s going to have to have input from across the board.”
Gruber, the University of Colorado law professor, is not convinced there can be a compromise on Title IX.
“Whatever he does, somebody’s not going to be happy,” she said.
The Biden administration’s path to well-received Title IX requirements is further complicated by outstanding allegations of sexual misconduct against Biden. Some student leaders of college sexual assault prevention groups said the allegations made them feel conflicted about voting for Biden in November, which they felt they had to do in order to reverse the Trump administration’s actions on Title IX. But Carson, of Know Your IX, said that she and other survivors have not forgotten the story of Tara Reade, the woman who said she was sexually assaulted by Biden in 1993, and others who said he inappropriately touched them.
“That’s something that our team is grappling with every day as we approach this administration,” Carson said. “That’s something we’re going to remember moving forward. We should always be supporting equity and supporting survivors, not just when it’s convenient.”