Wash. U. not deterred by new federal Title IX guidance, reaffirms commitment via statement
Despite Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ announcement Friday to formally rescind Barack Obama-era guidance regarding Title IX, Washington University has no plans to stray from its previous commitments and processes in addressing sexual violence on campus.
A statement released by the University Friday following DeVos’ announcement reaffirmed Washington University’s commitment to the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter and to recent initiatives aimed at gathering student input and addressing weak spots in the current Title IX process.
“Secretary DeVos’ announcement has generated real concerns that changes at the federal level could curtail efforts or, worse, undermine progress that has been made,” the statement reads. “Just as we are working to improve our approach here at the University, there are things that can be done to improve at the federal level, too. However, federal guidelines should remain as vigorous as they are today.”
In conjunction with the announcement, the Department of Education released a Q&A with interim guidance, which eliminates the 60-day recommended investigation limit and permits schools to apply either the “preponderance of the evidence” or the “clear and convincing evidence” standard. Under the Obama-era guidelines, universities were only recommended to apply the “preponderance of the evidence” standard—the lowest possible standard and the standard to which the University remains committed.
The changes at the federal level come amidst recent pushes by the administration to look at how the University handles sexual violence on campus. This push has included initiatives such as a series of listening sessions, which are being held this month and allow administrators to receive feedback from students on all aspects of sexual violence, including both the University’s investigation processes and its prevention and education efforts.
“We don’t plan to lower our expectations for our own process based on at least this current rolling back of the 2011 guidance,” Title IX Director Jessica Kennedy said. “Right now, we don’t have any plans to make any changes, except the changes we’ve already begun to implement to improve the timeliness of our process.”
Kennedy noted that a major part of the University’s reevaluation of its policies and processes is an attempt to speed up the time frame of its investigations without compromising its thoroughness, fairness and equity. Until the federal government makes formal changes via policy making—rather than just issuing guidance—the University is not legally bound to follow it.
“The goal has been to have the best process we can, keeping in mind that equity and that fairness—that thoroughness—and we know that the timeliness is where we’ve suffered. And we will continue to work on that,” Kennedy said. “But, I don’t see us making any changes currently, unless and until we’re forced to by rules or by [the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights] coming in and specifically telling us we have to.”
As a result of the listening sessions and evaluation of the University’s handling of sexual violence—a process initiated previously to and independently of DeVos’ announcement—Kennedy has said that all options are on the table, including a potential revamp of the current University Sexual Assault Investigative Board’s investigative process. She said senior officials in the administration are also considering conducting a semi-regular climate survey in order to continue discussion and feedback surrounding issues of sexual assault, specifically should the federal government relax the standards the University aims to uphold.
Leaders in Interpersonal Violence Education (LIVE) co-president and senior Rashi Narayan said she was encouraged by the University’s response following what she called DeVos’ “upsetting announcement.”
“We [in LIVE] don’t agree with it. We know the statistics that don’t back her up, and we are upset,” she said. “However, we are happy that the University put out the statement saying that it’s not going to go by this new guidance. Where it gets a little complicated is that we don’t want to say that the University is not going to change anything—because after last spring and the [Student Life] op-eds that came out, they are trying to change things.”
Kennedy also stressed the importance of keeping the campus community informed of the University’s response on how the federal government is engaging with one of the most prominent issues facing college campuses nationwide.
“We knew this was probably coming, and we want to have the ability to reassure people that they may feel a little panicked when they see a headline but to know that, at least right now, nothing is changing except improvements that we’re working to put into place,” she said.