Responding to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ announcement Thursday that she intends to replace Obama-era Title IX regulations, Provost Persis Drell underscored in a written statement Stanford’s commitment to preventing sexual assault, supporting its victims and conducting fair adjudication processes.
“Stanford has no intention of retreating, in any way, on the subjects of sexual assault and harassment,” Drell said. “We continue our commitment to move forward.”
In an address at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law, DeVos criticized Obama administration actions that increased government involvement in campus sexual assault cases and enumerated the responsibilities of colleges and universities when assault claims arise. Many advocates for sexual assault victims praised the reforms for pushing schools to crack down on sexual assault, while critics said they led schools to overstep their authority and create internal adjudication systems that denied accused students due process.
“Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach” under current regulations, DeVos said, referring to on-campus adjudication processes as “kangaroo courts,” which she argued do a disservice to both sexual assault victims and accused students. “And any school that uses a system biased toward finding a student responsible for sexual misconduct also commits discrimination.”
“Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined,” she said.
DeVos’ comments drew criticism from advocates for stronger Title IX protections concerned that the elimination of Obama-era regulations poses a threat to victims of sexual assault. In a Facebook post Thursday, campus group Stanford Associated Students for Assault Prevention (ASAP) urged community members to “protest and call for Betsy Devos to fight for survivors rather than perpetrators.”
“We cannot let the government give universities the chance to go backwards on the progress that has already been made,” Stanford ASAP stated in its post. “Along with universities across the nation, Stanford continues to fail survivors in its Title IX process — the fight cannot end here.”
Drell emphasized that Stanford’s Title IX policy goes beyond what law requires and includes a blend of federal and state policies, such as the Violence Against Women Act, California’s Education Code and the “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the Department of Education in 2011 that, among other changes, called on schools to lower the burden of proof necessary for finding responsibility in sexual assault cases to a “preponderance of evidence,” or more than 50 percent certainty.
Other on-campus resources such as Stanford’s Title IX Office, Confidential Support Team and the Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse (SARA) Office are “essential to supporting students,” Drell said.
Drell noted that Stanford is subject to California law, which requires that all schools receiving state funding adopt affirmative consent and the preponderance of evidence bar in Title IX cases.
Vice President for University Communications Lisa Lapin said that she could not speculate on how Stanford might respond if new guidance from the Department of Education were to conflict with state regulations.
“We will follow state law until such time as there is a federal law that is in direct conflict with it,” Lapin wrote in an email to The Daily. “Right now there is no such conflict. Under the federal preemption doctrine, federal law prevails, but historically states are permitted to provide additional civil rights protections beyond those provided by the federal government, and we expect that we will be able to continue to follow state law in this area.”
“[Stanford] will continue to provide resources beyond those required by law,” Lapin said.
In her announcement, DeVos said that Department of Education will solicit public input as it creates its new Title IX policies, launching a “notice-and-comment process to incorporate the insights of all parties.” Drell said that Stanford will publicly provide feedback to the Department of Education.
On behalf of Drell, Dean of Residential Education Deborah Golder forwarded the provost’s statement to all Resident Assistants Thursday.
Stephanie Pham ’18, president of Stanford ASAP, emphasized the room she sees for improvement in Stanford’s Title IX policies regardless of changes DeVos makes.
“Though the Provost states that there will be no plans to retreat from advancements already made, we must also recognize that Stanford’s current Title IX policy is still extremely flawed,” said Pham, who argued that Stanford “continues to fall short in holding perpetrators accountable” by using a narrower definition of sexual assault than many peer schools and not responding to criticism of current University policies.
Drell stressed in her letter that the Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault Policies and Practices, comprised of both faculty and students, is still seeking feedback from the broader Stanford community with regard to Title IX processes on campus. The group will recommend next steps on Title IX policy to Drell.
Stanford’s sexual assault definition is one issue that the task force has been reviewing. While many schools define sexual assault to include all non-consensual sexual contact, Stanford defines it as penetrative or oral sex by force or incapacitation, grouping other acts without consent under the term “sexual misconduct,” which carries a wider range of sanctions than the default of expulsion for assault. Stanford administrators have argued that the distinction reflects state law and helps differentiate types of forbidden conduct.
Some students have expressed support for the type of Title IX reform DeVos seeks. This February, the editorial board of the Stanford Review published an open letter to DeVos urging her to move away from the preponderance of evidence standard in sexual assault cases, saying it “de-legitimizes” the adjudication process.
“Preponderance of evidence … is the lowest standard of proof in the American justice system and is used almost exclusively to judge civil cases, not to determine individual guilt of sexual assault,” the board wrote. “And even these civil cases allow cross-examination, a right ‘strongly discouraged’ by the [U.S. Office for Civil Rights].”
In her statement, Drell affirmed Stanford’s desire to combat sexual assault.
“Eradicating sexual violence continues to be our goal, and both [University President] Marc [Tessier-Lavigne] and I are committed to strong policies and practices to continue moving us toward that goal,” she wrote.