Among the most unqualified and problematic leaders appointed by President Donald J. Trump is Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education. After effectively carrying out her personal and political agendas to defund and deprioritize public schools, DeVos has now also infiltrated actions pertaining to sexual assault by means of new Title IX regulations. Despite the Department of Education’s release statement that suggests these “historic actions” strengthen protections for “survivors of sexual misconduct,” the new regulations seek to undermine the foundation of Title IX by instead strengthening right-wing freedom of speech talking points.
Given the immediacy of these new regulations—as all schools must comply or risk losing federal funding—it is critical that we engage in a discussion of the history of Title IX, what the new Title IX looks like, the importance of the the @cwru.survivors Instagram page and how Case Western Reserve University is specifically responding to all these changes.
Title IX of the Education Amendments was initially established in 1972 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Title IX remained largely unchanged until the Obama administration, when a series of “Dear Colleague” letters were written encouraging universities to recognize sexual assault and harassment as a systemic issue that required extensive change in social attitudes and campus culture. At this point, universities had to implement comprehensive prevention programs in addition to providing holistic support for survivors.
Part of why Title IX is controversial—to some—is how it “infringes” upon free speech. That is, holding people responsible for their disgusting actions could undermine an individual’s and a university’s entitlement to make egregious comments promoting—or remaining silent about—sexual assault, discrimination and violence. Proponents of uninhibited freedom of speech, of course, do not phrase their argument this blantantly, but instead, consider Title IX initiatives and investigations into sexual assault on campuses to be “kangaroo courts.”
These arguments are given even more credence under the current presidential administration, which promotes sexism and violence on a nearly daily basis, most notably with its nomination of a Supreme Court justice with outstanding sexual assault accusations. Respect for women surely does not exist in this administration.
As such, it came as no surprise when DeVos started putting Trump’s campaign promises into action by drawing up changes to weaken Title IX regulations in 2018. The changes were not released until May 2020 and were then expected to be implemented by universities across the country by Aug. 14, with non-compliance putting their federal funding in jeopardy.
While there was one key problematic modification that DeVos made to the requirements themselves, there were also many stipulations removed from the previous requirements.
First and foremost, the Title IX office must now allow cross-examination of victims. If a person does not comply with the cross-examination, then the decision-maker cannot rely on their testimony. That means if a survivor does not want to be questioned about every moment of their assault and about their integrity, their experiences will simply be discredited.
Furthermore, DeVos has removed the requirements that universities provide free, comprehensive services (medical, counseling, academic support) to survivors and that they engage in preventative programs meant to address the systemic issues that allow sexual assault to prosper to begin with.
This shifts us into a discussion of whether DeVos’ agenda will take hold at CWRU.
This summer, a group of students established the @cwru.survivors Instagram page so students could anonymously share their experiences with sexual assault, violence, harassment and discrimination on CWRU’s campus, as well as experiences with the Title IX office. In a matter of days, there were hundreds of posts.
In addition to the other Instagram pages, notably @black.at.cwru, @disability.at.cwru and @lgbtq.at.cwru, @cwru.survivors has illustrated to other students, faculty and staff just how prevalent discrimination and assault are on this campus.
Listening to survivors’ stories is critical for there to be the much-needed change in our culture, which is the only thing that is likely to decrease the incidence of assault. “Students especially need to hold each other accountable,” said an administrator of the @cwru.survivors page.
“So many survivors shared how people who they thought were their friends or their sisters/brothers in Greek Life did not believe or support them, and/or supported and defended their abuser instead. Students need to listen to each other’s stories and be aware of the necessity of calling out those who committed acts of sexual misconduct, no matter how close we are to them.”
There is real change to occur and it must be taken by students, faculty and administrators.
Shortly before the start of fall semester, the university’s Title IX coordinator sent out a message to all students with updates about how the new regulations would affect CWRU, specifically.
It was encouraging to hear that the university was establishing additional channels through which people could report incidences that occur off campus, as the official Title IX office can no longer process these.
Furthermore, the university is launching new campaigns which seek to improve bystander intervention and foster discussions on how campus culture could be more inclusive and positive. These include “Informed U” (which happened during first-year orientation), “Silent Witness,” “Bringing in the Bystander” and a CWRU chapter of “It’s On Us.” Vice President for Student Affairs Lou Stark and Vice President for Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity Robert Solomon are also leading a task force to address these systemic issues.
Even more encouragingly, a university response to questions emphasized that “Education and prevention programs certainly can help reduce the number [of sexual assaults] on campus, but more meaningful change requires earlier and deeper initiatives to engage and address these cultural issues [including long-standing societal attitudes towards women and members of underrepresented groups] on a broad[er] scale.”
However, there are additional important matters that were, discouragingly, not addressed.
Firstly, in the mass email to all students, CWRU addressed “concerns raised on social media,” without actually acknowledging @cwru.survivors by name. The administration has failed to reach out to @cwru.survivors specifically or address many of the explicit and rather reasonable demands set forth, including a written confirmation that Title IX investigative panels will include at least two female-identifying members, one Black, Indigenous and Person of Color (BIPOC) member, and one student.
Furthermore, there needs to be clear elaboration on CWRU’s definition of consent. The Office of Title IX website says “consent is knowing, voluntary and clear permission by word or action to engage in sexual activity.” During the Title IX information section of Orientation Leader training, some students in attendance questioned this definition. In response, one student recalls the speaker saying, “if body actions are implying consent, then that’s okay.”
This is extremely worrisome for many reasons. Is CWRU suggesting body language can be used as consent? This would be problematic and ambiguous, to say the least, as people could claim they thought another person’s actions were indicative of consent when they clearly weren’t.
Orientation Leaders also had additional questions about other aspects of Title IX, which they were told would be answered by the office and returned to them; none of these concerns were ever addressed. The university did not respond to any questions about these situations.
Although CWRU already has its foot in the door, it’s time to go farther and stand in complete solidarity with survivors. No one should have to report on @cwru.survivors that they were slut-shamed or treated with disrespect by the Title IX Office or other administrators for reporting sexual assault. These people are strong and brave, and should be treated as such, regardless of what the federal government dictates through its abhorrent regulation changes.