The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Betsy DeVos is dismantling protections for students who allege sexual assault. But colleges don’t have to.

Donna Freitas. (Parker Young)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is deep in the process of dismantling what the Obama administration did to fight sexual assault and harassment on campus with respect to Title IX.

But — and this is a big but — American institutions of higher education do not have to listen.

As a frequent speaker about sex, consent and related subjects on college campuses for more than a decade, I have seen firsthand the changes that universities have been forced to put into place since the Obama administration released its April 2011 letter about Title IX. (The operative word here being “forced.”)

That letter — and subsequent letters that clarified Title IX’s reach with respect to sexual assault and harassment within institutions of higher education — made universities responsible for dealing with sexual violence and providing preventive education on campuses. Among other changes, it also established a new required position on campus, that of “Title IX coordinator,” to be the point person for all complaints.

Biden and Obama rewrite the rulebook on college sexual assaults

The results were not pretty — especially early on.

I have watched colleges scramble to respond, without much guidance, know-how or careful reflection about incidents on campus that can amount to felonies.

I have met administrative assistants who were suddenly assigned “Title IX coordinator” in addition to their full-time responsibilities, without any training about what their new duties entailed.

I have watched universities do little more than check off boxes to prove to the government they indeed complied with Title IX, that they offered (woefully inadequate) consent and Title IX-related education to students and faculty to protect federal funding.

I have listened to men on campuses complain that they believe everyone sees them as potential monsters, as offenders-in-waiting, and who feel they are now at risk of being denied due process.

Universities do need to do more — much more — to consider young men and due process.

And universities need to do far more to think in a complex and nuanced way about consent and sex education on campus.


I have also seen important, essential change. It has taken years of government advocacy and, yes, threats to comply, but we are now witnessing a significant cultural shift on campuses all over the United States.

The dust is beginning to settle after all of that scrambling, and we are entering a period in which universities are finally beginning to do what universities are meant to do in the face of sexual violence and harassment. They are taking the first steps toward reckoning with what is a systemic problem and doing what they can to address it.

Title IX coordinators are being hired and trained with the exclusive purpose of being the ombudsperson to handle complaints regarding sexual violence and harassment. Entire communities are beginning to think more expansively about consent education and what that means. Universities are seeking out people, consultants, experts to help them do what is necessary — or at least begin to do what is necessary — to prevent sexual violence and harassment from happening in the first place.

And, yes, this kind of response — the one that I’ve been waiting for — is in its early stages.

To give some context: before 2011, when I suggested the need to talk about sexual assault when I would visit a campus, many people shrugged or flat-out said, “No, don’t do that,” even though it was clear that their students needed to talk about this issue.

Many campus communities are on the brink of contending with sexual violence in ways our country has never seen before.

This does not have to end.

It has taken the specter of national scandal and the threat of losing federal funding for universities to finally do something — anything — to respond to, take seriously and protect those who have suffered from sexual violence and harassment.

The most shocking scandal of all would be for universities to stop doing what they’ve started and listen to DeVos after all they’ve begun. To turn their backs, once again, on the students and community members of all genders and sexual orientations, who suffer within this context of sexual violence and harassment that our culture has perpetuated for as long as most can remember.

It is one of the great shames within higher education of the late 20th and early 21st century that universities largely ignored the plight and pain of so many students within their communities. But it does not have to continue to be a shameful mark on our institutions.

Universities are meant to be beacons of hope, light and justice in our world, institutions that take on the most difficult, the most complex of issues and societal ills on behalf of the public good, because they have access to the extraordinary resources and minds necessary for attempting such a task.

I have always believed, and still do, that universities will rise to the occasion, and do what is necessary to interrupt and transform the circumstances that promote and perpetuate systemic sexual violence and harassment not only on their own campuses but also in the wider culture. I believe that universities — because they are made up of people who care, who think, who work for justice and human dignity for their living and purpose — will do the right thing here.

Universities have always held the keys to dealing with sexual violence and harassment within their communities; they have just failed to use those keys until very recently.

In a perfect world, Title IX should be a last resort, something taken up only in extreme circumstances when universities have failed to prevent sexual violence and harassment from happening in the first place.

But for the last seven years Title IX has been the reason for change, along with the brave young women on campuses all over the country who have shared their stories in the media and in myriad important, courageous ways.

DeVos can do all that she likes to destroy the beginnings of so much essential progress on our campuses.

But that doesn’t mean colleges have to listen.

Donna Freitas is a visiting associate professor at Adelphi University. Her new book, “Consent on Campus: A Manifesto,” came out last week.