WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos talked to lots of people — victims, students who said they were falsely accused and the family members of both — before she started to reform a policy instituted under President Barack Obama that instructs college campuses on how to deal with allegations of sexual assault.
She came to a simple conclusion, she said in a speech Thursday at George Mason University, “One rape is too many. One assault is too many. One aggressive act of harassment is too many. One person denied due process is one too many.”
That last sentence is key as DeVos has taken upon herself the difficult task of righting a pendulum that has swung too far.
In the not so distant past, university administrators often failed to protect female students or establish a culture that discouraged aggressive predatory behavior. In such an atmosphere, victims of sexual assault had good reason to fear reporting crimes committed against them lest they be subjected to an onslaught of questions that looked for fault in their behavior, instead of that of their attackers.
With the rise of feminism, the paradigm shifted. Authorities generally stopped looking for excuses to explain away violent or abusive acts. In the criminal justice system, the word was out — don’t blame the victim.
And then, as happens, the movement to stand up for victims morphed into something different. In 2011, the Office of Civil Rights for the Education Department sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to colleges with new guidelines for handling sexual assault cases. The letter threatened to withhold funds from institutions that did not adhere to the new policy, which requires schools to investigate all complaints of sexual assault and details how they must conduct disciplinary proceedings.
Desperate not to appear insensitive to victims of sexual assault, academia went overboard. The burden shifted from the accuser to the accused. The horror stories made news. Male students charged with assault were presumed guilty. Tribunals had the ability to expel students who were denied due process.
In The Atlantic, Emily Yoffe wrote about a University of Massachusetts, Amherst junior who was accused of sexual assault in 2014. His accuser wrote that the two students had gotten high together, then engaged in foreplay. She decided to leave. Later she wrote, “as my RA (resident adviser) training kicked in, I realized I’d been sexually assaulted.”
“I want to fully own my participation in what happened, but at the same time recognize that I felt violated and that I owe it to myself and others to hold him accountable for something I felt in my bones wasn’t right,” she wrote.
Police investigated the case and…