Obama Campaign Against Campus Rape in Doubt Under Trump's Secretary of Education

Betsy DeVos has met with anti-feminist organizations fighting 'false accusations' and called for reexamining the policy requiring universities to investigate rape charges

U.S. President Donald Trump stands behind Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she speaks to students at the White House, May 3, 2017.
JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

A major change has occurred over the last few years in the way American universities handle instances of sexual harassment and rape on campus, with hundreds of institutions pledging to investigate such complaints much more seriously. The effort was spearheaded by former President Barack Obama, who threatened to cut funding to schools that did not comply with new White House-issued guidelines; he used his position as the leader of the free world to speak out passionately against rape culture.

But recent statements by current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about false accusations and the need to reexamine the investigation process of rape on campus suggest that the situation may be taking another change in direction, this time backward.

Last week, in her first remarks about campus rape, DeVos said she planned to change the policy that had made a large impact on higher education institutions. “A system without due process ultimately serves no one in the end,” she said at a press conference. DeVos stressed that she would continue to protect rape victims, saying, “We can’t go back to the days when allegations were swept under the rug,” but also spoke compassionately about some students who were accused of rape. “It was clear that their stories have not often been told, and that there are lives that have been ruined and lives that are lost in the process,” she said.

DeVos spoke after holding meetings with representatives of various organizations concerned about the issue of campus rape. She then invited speakers from three groups to share their views on the matter: university officials, students who were victims of rape and representatives of men’s rights organizations that refute campus rape statistics and say they are based on false accusations. Each group was allotted equal time.

DeVos drew criticism in the American media for meeting with representatives of Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, whose platform is “protecting victims, stopping false allegations, ending abuse” – of men by women. SAVE argues on their website that “female initiation of partner violence is the leading reason for the woman becoming a victim of subsequent violence.” DeVos also met with the National Coalition for Men, an anti-feminist organization that publishes the names and photos of female college students who have filed rape complaints in order to shame "false accusers.”

Organizations that represent survivors of sexual assault are warning that DeVos’s meetings with groups that support the accused, along with her comments on the subject of campus rape, herald a sharp turn away from the revolution on college campuses that began in 2011. That year, a new Obama policy interpreted Title IX, the legislation that prohibits discrimination in American higher education institutions, as requiring a thorough investigation of all student complaints about sexual assault.

Instead of using the previous standard of "clear and convincing evidence" in investigating rape complaints, universities were asked to employ the lower-threshold "preponderance of evidence" standard. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reviewed hundreds of schools, including prestigious one like Harvard University, to see whether they were meeting the new requirements, and those found to be noncompliant faced government cutbacks. Colleges and universities across the United States pledged to follow the new procedures.

Obama made the cause a personal project. In 2014, he held a press conference announcing that in order to fight rape, including rape on campus, "a fundamental shift in our culture" was necessary. He called on American men not to remain passive: “From sports leagues to pop culture to politics, our society does not sufficiently value women It is not just on parents of young women to caution them, it is on the parents of young men to teach them respect for women. It is on grown men to set an example and be clear about what it means to be a man," he said.

And it's not just the expects that DeVos has chosen to meet with. Some of her appointments are also a source of concern for women’s organizations dedicated to fighting rape on campus. Naming Candice Jackson as head of the department's Office for Civil Rights is considered particularly troubling.

Jackson is a Republican activist with a controversial history on the topic of rape. She spent years working on the rape accusations against Bill Clinton and in 2005 published a book on the subject entitled, “Their Lives: The Women Targeted by the Clinton Machine.” Jackson came to the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump accompanied by Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick, who had both accused the former president of rape. With her was also Paula Jones, who had accused him of sexual harassment, and Kathy Shelton, whose rapist was represented in court by Hillary Clinton when she was a criminal defense attorney. (Clinton was appointed by the judge to defend him.) Jackson participated in a joint press conference with the women and Donald Trump, and sat with them in the front row during the debate.

In addition to her show of support for Bill Clinton’s accusers, Jackson, who once wrote about being a survivor of sexual assault herself, also attacked the women who accused Trump of sexual harassment. In a 2016 Facebook post she asserted that the women’s complaints were politically motivated and that they were “fake victims.” "Falsely painting yourself as a victim is not only horribly unfair to the person wrongly accused; it’s also an insult to real abuse victims," she wrote.

In a recent New York Times interview, Jackson said, referring to campus sexual assault claims, “the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk, we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.'"