In response to concerns with new Title IX regulations, about 50 students and professors from the University of Michigan's Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Law School and Department of Sociology hosted a Title IX comment writing event Monday night in Hutchins Hall Monday night.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to the 1964 Civil Rights Act was created to abolish discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs. This policy is applied to public universities in order to prevent gender-based discrimination.
In 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos withdrew much of the guidelines created to uphold the requirements of Title IX set by President Barack Obama's administration. This fall, new regulations were proposed by the Department of Education. The comment writing event was held in order to highlight the regulatory changes as well as encourage students to participate in the notice and comment process.
Nina Mendelson, a University Law School professor specializing in administrative law, said the comment writing process has a large impact on Title IX regulation decisions. According to Mendelson, educational departments set standards of conduct that institutions who receive federal funding must comply with. Such standards are most often in the form of a regulatory proposal. The law requires agencies to give notice to the public about what the proposal is and allow them to comment on it. Then, they have a legal obligation to review all comments and respond if there is a significant issue raised — they may decide to change the regulation in response to the comments.
According to Rackham student Kamaria Porter, whose research focuses on reporting sexual assault, this new proposal drastically limits the places that can be investigated to strictly on-campus sites.
In 2015, the University of Michigan Climate Survey found that 41.2 percent of non-consensual sex occurred off campus for undergraduates and 72 percent for graduate students. Porter said limiting the scope would exclude the majority of cases and continue to perpetuate sexual misconduct and violence. She also claimed such restrictions open up opportunities for the University to avoid liability and put multiple harmful cases on the backburner.
Another big change in the new regulations was the definition of sexual harassment. In previous years, the Obama administration worked to broaden the definition, as well as increase guidelines to include the rights of transgender students. However, the new reforms roll back the safeguards for transgender student rights and narrow the definition. Now, only incidents that are deemed “severe” enough can be investigated.
According to Sandra Levitsky, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, the line for severity follows a very strict legal standard which eliminates many cases.
“Almost no cases will fall under the new definition — it’s really rigid,” Levitsky said.
According to Porter, the new proposal seeks to legalize the hearing process. All cases will now include a live hearing where both sides are mandated to go through cross-examinations. A similar decision was made by the Sixth Circuit Court last September which mandates the University adopt similar practices to the new regulation.
“It’s making it look like even more of a criminal trial-like procedure than an educational procedure you would find in a student conduct hearing,” Porter said. “The people running it — higher educational professionals — aren’t trained to be lawyers, be judges and operate in a criminal legal space. They’re educators, they want to help students go beyond their worst act. And they want to support students to heal in order to access education. The process doesn’t match the people that will be doing it.”
Porter said the move towards mandating cross-examinations also introduces new problems of inequality and accessibility, claiming discrepancies between legal representatives and advisers in a misconduct case may make the decision process unfair.
“The new regulation doesn’t account for the power and resource differences between the parties,” Porter said. “This affects both sides.”
In the wider political sphere, the opportunity to comment on a policy is not unique to the Department of Education. But due to the legal obligation the agency has to read every comment that is sent, Porter said it is essential for students to participate in the notice and comment process.
LSA sophomore Quinn Riley said the new regulations were mentioned in class but she wanted to actively work to reverse the new policies.
“My women’s studies course touched briefly on the new regulations,” Quinn said. “And I felt like it was my responsibility to be more informed as opposed to skimming the surface of a subject. They highlighted the fact that certain groups are marginalized by the proposed regulations and that’s what I’m going to be focusing my comment about.”
In the last hour, the event transitioned into an open space where audience members were encouraged to talk among each other and ask questions as they formulated their comments. Levitsky said the event hoped to create a strong voice against the regulation proposal that the Department of Education can’t ignore.
“This opportunity is a collective action to make sure that voices are heard by the Department of Education and our federal government,” Levitsky said.