Berkeley National Organization for Women was extremely disappointed to hear that the U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, intends to rescind the Obama administration’s directive to enhance protections for sexual assault survivors on college campuses. In Secretary Devos’ statement that the current policy represents a “failed system,” she forgot to acknowledge that many survivors have suffered under a system that failed to validate their experiences and accusations.
On Sept. 14, 29 U.S. senators sent an open letter to Secretary DeVos, asking her to preserve the guidelines that the Obama administration set for Title IX. In this letter, the senators stated that, “the current guidance is critical to ensuring that schools understand and take seriously their responsibilities under the law, and we urge you to leave the current guidance in place.” By rescinding the current guidelines, Secretary DeVos opens the door for colleges and universities to return to policies of ignorance and neglect on matters of sexual harassment and violence.
We do believe that Secretary DeVos is right in the sense that there needs to be more of a conversation about how best to manage university policies on sexual misconduct. This should not, however, operate as a signal for the policies to be less stringent. Instead, this conversation should create space for survivors to have a larger role in the policymaking regarding sexual harassment and violence issues, such that universities learn to support rather than conceal marginalized voices.
We would like acknowledge that within this conversation, there is also space to revisit practices of due process. While we do not suggest deviation from the Obama-era guidelines, there may be room for all parties to have better representation when faced with cases of sexual misconduct.
We would also like to assert that survivors include many genders. Some estimates suggest that nearly half of transgender individuals are survivors of sexual assault. Women-identified people are also disproportionately survivors of sexual violence, with almost 1 in 5 women experiencing sexual violence at some point in their lives. Additionally, millions of men are survivors of sexual assault. This last point is significant and terrible, but it should never be mentioned as a way to invalidate the experiences of transgender individuals and women. We must look to uphold survivors as people who share a commitment to deconstructing a system of sexual violence that is often nurtured in university spaces.
We would also like to acknowledge the racial bias that often takes place in sexual assault cases. People of color, particularly men of color, are more likely to be charged and sentenced and face longer sentences than white individuals who commit sexual assault. Likewise, when a white woman is sexually assaulted, the sentence of the perpetrator is likely to be longer than when a woman of color is sexually assaulted. In the conversation that Secretary DeVos has started, Berkeley National Organization for Women hopes that the intersection of race, class, ethnicity, ability and other factors is discussed in how disproportionately our criminal justice system is operated.
In Patricia Williams’ book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, she states, “That life is complicated is a fact of great analytic importance.” The conversation about the role of universities in sexual harassment and assault cases is, in all senses of the word, complicated. Discussion about these issues should be destigmatized, because without dialogue, survivors and their experiences will remain taboo and invisible.
We encourage the UC Board of Regents to maintain and improve the sexual assault policy it practiced during former president Barack Obama’s years in office. UC Berkeley, in particular, has had issues protecting its students and staff from sexual aggression that has been perpetuated and hidden by the administration, faculty, and students. We represent one of the most diverse and progressive campuses and collegiate systems in the world. The tone we set and the policy we codify generates a precedent for how other colleges will respond to sexual assault. It is our responsibility to protect survivors and charge the accused through channels of proper due process. We believe Secretary Devos’ policy suggestion is built on an underlying dismissal of survivors’ stories, considering that the current president has explicitly bragged about sexual assault.
Survivors will not be pushed back into the dark. Accusations of sexual assault cannot be swept under the rug. We will not return to an era in which silence is the compulsory policy practiced by universities.
Berkeley National Organization for Women stands by survivors and encourages Secretary DeVos, the UC system and all other colleges and universities to do the same.
Molly Kraus is the president of Berkeley National Organization for Women.