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Hours after Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the United States Secretary of Education Tuesday, some Harvard student activists concerned about how she will enforce the anti-sex discrimination law Title IX started plotting a response.
DeVos, who has little background in public education, earned the Senate’s confirmation in a close 51-50 vote after Vice President Michael Pence cast the tie-breaking vote Tuesday.
Anti-sexual assault advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better is preparing a public statement that outlines their “dismay” at DeVos’s confirmation and reaffirms the group’s commitment to supporting victims of sexual assault at Harvard, according to organizer Jessica R. Fournier ’17.
Since President Donald Trump nominated DeVos for the position in November, Democrats and Republicans alike have raised concerns about her qualifications for the job. DeVos, a billionaire, has donated thousands of dollars to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an advocacy organization seeking to make it more difficult to punish college students accused of sexual assault.
During her Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 17, DeVos suggested that federal enforcement of Title IX—especially as it relates to sexual assault on college campuses—would likely shift under her guidance. She did not say whether she would continue former President Barack Obama’s approach to the legislation.
Under Obama, the federal government expanded its oversight of how universities respond to cases of sexual assault on campus. In particular, the Department of Education called on colleges to adopt a “preponderance of the evidence” standard for sexual assault investigations, among other stipulations. At the department’s urging, the University adopted the proposed standard in 2014.
“Obviously this is really disappointing news,” Fournier said. “Now more than ever, we want to emphasize we are still here, we’re not giving up, we’re not going away, and we’re going to continue fighting for the rights of survivors of sexual assault on campus.”
“DeVos is hugely concerning for many reasons,”she added. “One of those reasons is because she really has no interest in upholding Title IX protections for survivors.”
Fournier said she fears DeVos’s confirmation will lead to less federal enforcement of Title IX, meaning fewer investigations will be opened in sexual violence cases and victims of sexual assault will be less likely to earn redress.
“Given who she is, who Trump is, this is something we can expect to see,” Fournier said.
In an interview last week prior to DeVos’s confirmation, Harvard Deputy Provost Peggy E. Newell vowed that any “relaxation in requirements” from the White House would not affect the University’s commitment to addressing issues of sexual assault on campus.
“In the unlikely event that new requirements come down, we’ll obviously comply with those requirements,” she said. “[But] it doesn’t really matter what’s happening in Washington in terms of the level of attention we’re going to provide to this.”
Bill D. McCants, Harvard’s Acting Title IX Officer, agreed with Newell and said he does not believe DeVos’s confirmation will affect the University’s stance on Title IX.
“This is my 15th year of doing civil rights investigations, including Title IX, and the wind has shifted over those 15 years in various directions and I don’t believe that the core mission of assuring equal access to the University’s programs and activities has wavered in that time,” McCants said.
“So that’s the reason why I’m confident this will not mean a course change for Harvard at all,” he added.
–Staff writer Hannah Natanson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannah_natanson.
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