In their efforts to protect victims of sexual assault on college campuses, "progressive" bureaucrats in former President Barack Obama's Department of Education coerced universities into adopting draconian guidelines about sexual assault. These have proved a nightmare for students and administrators, and on Thursday Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began the necessary work of clearing up the mess.
The Obama administration policy and process were both misguided. It would hand down threats in the form of "Dear Colleague" letters to schools, in which educational establishments were given the choice of either adopting the latest fad from the leading edge of sexual politics or losing federal money. In layman's terms, Obama's education henchmen practiced policy extortion with menaces.
Circumventing Congress and skipping the standard rulemaking process, officials sought to impose their will on campuses. Their behavior was rooted in the far-left's reflex to weaponize the federal government and waive the rights of men accused of sexual misconduct.
The result has been to cast higher education into chaos and turn colleges into places of fear, puritanical intimidation, kangaroo courts, and traduced reputations. The promise of intellectual and social adventure that used to be associated with the arrival of 18-year-olds at college has been pulverized by the clenched fist of intolerant left-wing sexual politics.
An infamous Dear Colleague letter in 2011 directed schools to lower their standard of proof from "clear and convincing" to "preponderance of the evidence."
Since then, guilt has been asserted and devastating punishment meted out even when there are clear reasons to believe that accused young men are innocent of any crime or of anything that the sexual mores of our admittedly debased culture would have thought was wrong as recently as a couple of years ago. To condemn someone against whom an accusation has been made, it has been sufficient that their tribunal thinks its 50.1 percent likely that they behaved as accused.
In sum, Obama urged schools to adopt sweeping definitions of sexual misconduct, create sprawling bureaucracies staffed by Title IX coordinators, rely on single investigators, conduct their own investigations separately from law enforcement, and demolish young citizens' rights to due process.
As DeVos correctly noted with ironic understatement in her speech on Thursday, "we must do better, because the current approach isn't working."
Her speech was firm, acknowledging a painful reality while offering due consideration to the many victims of sexual assault and of false accusations. The former outnumber the latter — it could not be otherwise in a culture that has for decades encouraged casual, consequence-free sexual encounters — but it is also undeniable that an increasing number of young men have been punished severely for crimes they did not commit.
DeVos has spent time listening to advocates on both sides of this matter and shared stories of survivors and falsely accused students. One involved a football player expelled after he was observed "playfully roughhousing" with his girlfriend. The young woman assured investigators she had not been abused, but her account was disregarded. "I was stereotyped and was told I must be a 'battered' woman, and that made me feel demeaned and absurdly profiled," she said.
DeVos shared another harrowing story from the other side of the coin, from of a woman who was raped and whose attacker went free because a court found that he'd been denied due process by their school. "Survivors aren't well-served," DeVos said, "when they are re-traumatized with appeal after appeal because the failed system failed the accused."
Schools around the country are tangled in lawsuits caused by the Obama system's grotesque failures.
"There are men and women, boys and girls, who are survivors, and there are men and women, boys and girls who are wrongfully accused," DeVos noted. "I've met them personally. I've heard their stories. And the rights of one person can never be paramount to the rights of another."
Rather than acting in haste, DeVos asked schools to consider advice from the American Bar Association, the American College of Trial Lawyers, and Harvard Law faculty, which have offered suggestions for improvements.
There must be, as DeVos said, "a better way forward." But it won't be discovered by bureaucrats in Washington.
The approach outlined in the secretary's speech should give students, parents, and universities hope that this administration will fix the mistakes of the last one and bring justice to the nation's campuses.