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October 5, 2017

An Assault on Victims

UChicago claims to care about sexual assault, but its actions say otherwise.

On September 22 of this year, Betsy DeVos rescinded the Obama-era guidance on campus sexual assault. Under this change, universities may increase the burden of proof necessary to discipline those students accused of sexual assault or misconduct. This action reverses years of civil rights efforts and ignores the rightful demands of victim advocates. DeVos’s move, ostensibly implemented to offer “fair justice” to both the victims and accused, gives universities too much power under the superficial guise of equal rights. But while DeVos’s actions are reprehensible, the UChicago administration’s lack of discipline toward the accused is not much better.

UChicago and other schools like the University of Wisconsin–Madison and UC Berkeley have reaffirmed their respective sexual assault policies in response to DeVos’s announcement. But UChicago’s rhetoric on the issue is often lacking. Provost Daniel Diermeier, prior to DeVos’s announcement, sent an email “reaffirm[ing] that the University is strongly committed to supporting members of our community on these issues.” Comparably, Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, called DeVos’s suggestion “extremely troubling” and argued such a policy cruelly reverses years of progress. Our university, as of now, has failed to condemn DeVos’s actions in similar terms and continues to commit itself to overly lax sexual misconduct policies, which prioritize prevention at the cost of discipline.

To elaborate, the University deserves commendation for its emphasis placed on sexual misconduct awareness, prevention training, and affirmative consent, which is mandated in some capacity for all “students, faculty, other academic appointees, staff, and postdoctoral researchers” across campus. But while the University has placed strong focus on taking preemptive measures in combating sexual assault cases on campus, it does not place nearly enough of the same urgency on addressing the issue when sexual assault cases on campus do occur. 

The University has a history of mishandling proper disciplinary protocols for assaulters. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) launched a campus-wide investigation into the University’s potential breach of Title IX, after mishandling a sexual assault case. Last February, the Maroon Editorial Board released a statement clarifying the necessity of the University’s commitment to strong sexual assault policies, alluding at times to the complainant’s experience with the administration, which involved then dean of students, Susan Art, classifying the assault as a mere “dispute between students.” Said complainant is hardly alone: The University is currently being investigated by the Department of Education (ED) for three cases of potential Title IX violations due to possible negligence in handling cases of sexual misconduct. In addition, a number of sexual assaults have been reported across fraternities, yet the University has been inconsistent with its response at best. As formally unrecognized institutions—staggering, considering many are physically housed on campus, close to dorms and classrooms—fraternities have essentially been left to regulate themselves.

Preventing sexual assault is clearly significant, but ensuring justice for victims in the aftermath is a moral obligation. Arguably, the severity of disciplinary action taken by the University in discipling those accused of assault could even serve as an initial deterrent, helping diminish the frequency of sexual misconduct on campus. With dubious policy shifts affecting sexual assault on college campuses at the federal level, the University cannot use this as an opportunity to double down on its already permissive system of discipline. Ineffectual protocols at the federal level must not allow the University to renege on its commitment to handling cases of sexual assault. The University community must take this period of time to pay careful attention to the next move the administration makes and to hold it accountable.

Soulet Ali is a second-year in the College.

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