DeVos’s Title IX Proposal Could Impact Oberlin

Editor’s Note: This article contains mention of sexual harassment and assault.

The public comment period on the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed changes to Title IX regulations has ended. Now, the department, led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, will respond to comments before ultimately deciding to implement changes.

These proposed changes will affect how colleges and universities respond to accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus. Some fear they will lessen the accountability placed on colleges across the country and boost the rights of defendants, making victims of assault less likely to come forward. Supporters of the changes are hopeful that it will fix a failed system that presumes guilt and make the process more fair to accused students. Many faculty and students are wondering how these will affect Oberlin.

“They had over 100,000 comments, which is why most of us don’t feel like it’s going to [be put into law] quite as quickly, because that’s a lot of comments to respond to,” said Title IX and ADA coordinator and director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Rebecca Mosely. “Once they’ve made their response, that’s when they will let us know when it goes into effect. … But nobody really knows what that’s going to look like at this point.”

Last November, the federal government released a 38-page document outlining the proposed changes. While not all will affect Oberlin specifically, some mandate compliance from colleges and universities. One proposed change that could affect Oberlin students is that of geographic jurisdiction.

“The current proposal as it stands would make it so that a school’s Title IX policy and their office doesn’t have any sort of jurisdiction once it’s outside of the college space, which is terrible because that currently makes it so that no one would be able to do anything from the office if someone got assaulted while they were abroad,” said College senior and Student Senator Kirsten Mojziszek, who is on the Title IX Policy Committee. “That just seems like something that feels so inherent to what you do as a Title IX office: Protect your students no matter what.”

This proposed change could also affect incidents involving students who live in off-campus housing or participate in certain remote Winter Term projects.

“It’s hard because if it’s a law or if this policy comes into effect, we have to follow it — even though we’re a private institution — because we get federal funding, which is why we have so many different grants for students who are Pell-eligible or who get work study through the federal government,” Mojziszek said. “All of that would go away if we stopped following the rules, which is horrible. So there’s no, like, ‘Oh, we can just like defy it anyways,’ which sucks.”

Policy changes could also impact how Oberlin handles formal processes to address sexual misconduct. If a student decides to go through the formal process, instead of an alternative one, some of the new rules would already line up with Oberlin’s current framework. Oberlin already mandates a live hearing; however, the new policy would change the way that hearing would progress.

“The changes that I think are not positive and that are concerning to me, and I’m hoping [they] will be edited out of whatever goes forward, is to have the parties be able to directly question the other party through the use of their advisor,” Mosely said.

This advisor is picked by the student and there are no regulations on who the student chooses.

“The advisors [who] were allowed to do this direct questioning could be lawyers or parents and ask very inappropriate, traumatizing questions,” said Raavi Asdar, a College first-year on the Title IX Policy Committee.

Some are concerned that, in cases where one student can afford an attorney but another can’t, there will be systematic inequities with regard to legal representation.

“I envision a space where — whether it’s the responding party who’s getting questioned by an attorney, or a reporting party getting questioned by an attorney — that has a very different feel to it than what we have right now, which is more intended to be what colleges are about, which is an educational process,” Mosely said.

Fortunately, according to Mosely, some elements of the proposal could make an informal proceeding more desirable.

“It’s really not all bad,” Mosely said. “If you choose an alternative dispute process, you have another path. Right now the informal process … doesn’t allow for mediation. It doesn’t allow for a restorative justice model. … Typically it’s not just those two people that are feeling the impact of the incident that occurred. … What I love about some of the alternative dispute resolution models is that it’s not just about person A and person B. It’s about person A, person B, and C, D, E, F, and G, right? So it allows that whole community to come to the table and talk about the impact it has had on them and think about a way to heal as a community.”

Oberlin’s standard of evidence could also be required to change under the proposed reform. Currently, Oberlin’s standard of evidence is called “preponderance of the evidence.”
“[Preponderance of the evidence] is mostly known as 50.1 percent,” said Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Conduct and Community Standards Thom Julian. “Basically, it’s more likely than not that the violation occurred, whereas [the] ‘clear and convincing’ [standard] is 75 percent. ‘Beyond a reasonable doubt’ is 99 percent, which is used in criminal court investigations.”

The change would likely compel Oberlin to increase their standard of evidence in formal proceedings, making it more difficult for a victim of sexual assault to make their case.
Other proposed changes likely won’t affect Oberlin, but will affect other colleges and universities. Across the country, many are concerned that the proposal makes it easier for a college to request exemption from the policies of Title IX for religious reasons. Some worry that this makes LGBTQ students who are victims of sexual assault more vulnerable to discrimination. This won’t impact Oberlin, which isn’t a religious institution.

Another proposal would change the national definition of sexual harassment to “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity.” This could mean that schools don’t have to act unless an incident is so severe that the victim is entirely denied their education because of it.

For now, however, the full effects of the proposed changes remain unclear for both Oberlin and colleges across the country.

“It’s a big question mark,” Asdar said. “We’re just waiting right now, which is limited.”

Students with further questions can contact Rebecca Mosely at the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.