It’s official: Betsy DeVos is now the secretary of education. Two Republicans crossed party lines to oppose her, but it came down to a 50-50 tie with Vice President Mike Pence getting the final say. So here we are.
All eyes (okay, many eyes) were on this count after DeVos’ controversial confirmation hearing in mid-January, where she notoriously bungled quite a few of the senators’ questions, appearing to not know much about the public school system she’s now in charge of. (She never worked in, attended, or sent her kids to a public school.) It seemed like the billionaire’s experience in education began and ended with donations to the Michigan legislators behind the state’s charter program. Which, if applied at a national level along with vouchers she fervently supports, critics say could gut the public school system.
But young millennial women, and anyone in or heading to college, may be more concerned with the fact that DeVos now oversees the enforcement of Title IX, a federal law that the Obama Administration used to fight sexual assault on college campuses. The big question now is what she will do with it.
What is Title IX?
Passed in the ‘70s, Title IX is the law that says no one should be discriminated against, harassed, or excluded on the basis of their sex at any federally-funded education program. So, yes, this is the rule that made sure your high school girls’ soccer team had equal field time as the boys did, but it’s also what made sure your college took campus rape seriously.
We have Title IX to thank for clarifying that a professor demanding sexual favors from female students in exchange for good grades is not only unacceptable, it’s discrimination (yes, this had to be put in writing; it was at Yale in the ‘70s). It says that education is a civil right that should be offered to everyone, equally.
Then, in 2011, then-Vice President Joe Biden, who spent his career combatting domestic violence (penning the Violence Against Women Act in the 1990s), took Title IX and dialed it way up.
Under Biden and then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Office of Civil Rights sent a sweeping explainer to universities detailing the ways they were expected to address sexual violence on their campuses — an epidemic Biden referred to as our nation’s “dirty secret.” It spelled out what accommodations should be offered to students reporting assault on campus (from test extensions to new dorm rooms) or those facing accusations (a hearing, by someone without a conflict of interest); how much evidence is required to find a student guilty of such claims (some, but not tons), and more. Before that letter, universities did as much or as little of this regulating as they wanted.
In 2016, yet more guidance was released, this time clarifying that a student’s gender identity counted as their “sex” with regards to Title IX, and so all these protections were extended to transgender students, too.
These requirements were signed, sealed, and delivered with the tacit threat that any school that doesn’t comply, will lose its federal funding — a swift kick in the pockets that would take down almost any higher learning institution.
Why is this controversial?
Conservatives have long charged that the guidelines were aggressive and over-reaching.
For example, it doesn’t just say a survivor of assault can move classes or dorms, it allows her to request that the accused attacker be removed — which is where conservatives’ biggest problem with these rules comes in. Critics say you can’t promise these protections to survivors of sexual assault without infringing on the rights of the accused; that when schools handle rape cases instead of police precincts handling them, the accused aren’t getting their due process. This is also because there’s a lower requirement on the evidence used in school hearings than would be necessary in a court of law. (You have to make it pretty convincing, but not “beyond reasonable doubt,” that the events you say happened in fact happened.) Of course, this disregards the very good reasons many survivors or sexual assault end up not reporting it at all, to the tune of 50% of those that happen on college campuses.
And once the guidance was expanded to allow trans people to use the school facilities for the gender with which they identify — well, you can imagine how the far right might feel about that.
Can Betsy DeVos rewrite those rules?
Well, none of that even is “the rules.” It’s “guidance” on how to uphold Title IX, which some — including an organization the DeVos family has donated to — think is unconstitutional. And the Office of Civil Rights, which makes sure schools uphold all this guidance, reports to the secretary of education: Betsy DeVos. At a minimum, she has to tell them to keep enforcing it.
“It’s important for young people to know that Title IX can’t be rolled back just by tinkering with the guidance,” Mahroh Jahangiri, executive director of Know Your IX told Refinery29. “Title IX is the law, and the protections provided by it have been clarified by federal cases over decades; those rights aren’t going anywhere.” But you could fill a Big Ten school’s stadium with what exists in the space between what the law says is your right, and what you know, demand, and then get access to because it’s within your right.
By threatening to pull federal funding, Biden ensured schools adhere to this guidance. If DeVos were to remove that threat, she wouldn’t be rewriting the rules, but she’d be removing schools’ main motivation to uphold them. “This clarification and better accessibility of the law...that’s something DeVos could, and Republicans have said they would like to, alter or repeal. It’s not nothing — it’s terrifying,” Jahangiri said.
So what does Betsy DeVos actually think about Title IX?
This was unclear until Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania asked her about it in her hearing. And...it’s still unclear. “Assault in any form is never okay. I just want to be very clear on that,” DeVos said. “If confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and current situation better, and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim...as well as those who are accused.”
We can also look into her proverbial purse to presume her stance on this important issue. The DeVos family foundation has made numerous and lofty donations to Republican lawmakers. (Senator Bernie Sanders placed this at $200 million from the entirety of her family; and back in 1997 DeVos wrote that they’d expect a “return on investment” from such contributions). They've also chipped in to an organization that’s actively fighting the way universities currently address Title IX complaints.
Now that she’s been confirmed, will she make looking into these “past actions and the current situation” a priority? The outlook is not that good.
What can you do now?
It should be noted that it had taken 1,469 days on average to complete campus sexual assault investigations in 2014, according to the probe by Senators Tim Kaine, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Barbara Boxer, Inside Higher Ed reported last spring. That means years after the Obama administration first demanded attention be paid to the safety and respect of women and other marginalized groups on campus, needs still dwarfed the resources to address them. With a new secretary of education in charge, activists are going to continue making noise around this issue.
“My job is to amplify the voice of survivors, especially those who are most marginalized,” said Colleen Daly, director of media and strategic communications at End Rape on Campus. Her organization, together with Know Your IX penned an open letter to Betsy DeVos before her hearing, starting a social media campaign urging her to uphold crucial Title IX advancements. This campaign, Daly added, “is to ensure that Betsy DeVos hears directly from the people that are most impacted by her work, and that she understands that this is genuinely a civil rights issue.”
It’s up to Betsy DeVos to uphold, enforce, and maybe rewrite guidance that reaches into those dorms and locker rooms across the country — which is not to say her opposition feels defeated.
“DeVos and Republicans are facing a very strong movement of young people who are making sure that [guidance] stays in place…and we aren’t going anywhere,” Jahangiri said. Ultraviolet cofounder Nita Chaudhary agrees: "We will mobilize our more than 1 million members to defend any attacks on Title IX and we will not give an inch on the fight to end campus rape. Given the energy we're seeing from our members in communities across the country so far, we know they stand ready to fight."
The first few weeks of the Trump administration have shown that vocal resistance works — which is reason enough to keep that #DearBetsy hashtag alive. Who knows? Maybe her boss will read it.