Section: News

Federal Title IX changes could impact Kenyon community

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, a statute that protects students at federally funded institutions from sex-based discrimination, has been controversial since its inception. Some critics say that it does not go far enough to ensure gender equality, while others claim that its application in sexual misconduct cases gives too much power to the accuser.

Among the latter group is Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has called Title IX a “failed system,” and wants to revise the law. She has proposed a resolution that would make the rules behind sexual assault accusations more stringent. The resolution has been in the works for almost two years, and a final draft is expected to be released in the coming months.

With the draft’s release imminent, Kenyon administrators are bracing themselves for a shift in policy. On Jan. 22, a Student-Info bulletin was sent out by Samantha Hughes, civil rights and Title IX coordinator at Kenyon. The bulletin notified students of the upcoming changes, but warned that, as of now, the Kenyon administration does not yet know the extent of the changes, nor exactly when they will be put into effect.

“Until new federal regulations are finalized, the College will continue to follow its established policy,” Hughes wrote. “Regardless of the content of the finalized regulations, Kenyon is committed to fostering a campus environment that is free from sex- and gender-based harassment, discrimination, and violence.”

Current Title IX rules allow students to take legal action against any “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” The proposed changes would make the requirements for prosecution more rigorous: To be actionable, the conduct would have to be “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.” They would also alter the nature of proceedings, so that the process would more closely resemble that of a traditional courtroom.

The draft has drawn criticism for bringing a litigious atmosphere into a process that, for many, is very personal. “Colleges … are not courts,” wrote Hamilton College president David Wippman and Cornell University professor Glenn Altschuler, in an opinion piece for The Hill. At Kenyon, President Sean Decatur worries about how the community will react to a policy shift.

“To me, there are two things that are concerning about the changes,” Decatur said. “One is what it actually means for the community . . . can we keep to the values that we’ve tried to embrace? And then there’s [the issue of] whiplashing back and forth between, ‘This is the definition of sexual misconduct,’ ‘No this is the definition.’ It’s hard for the community to change multiple times in a short period of time.”

However, Decatur notes that the changes might be short-lived—colleges have pushed back strongly against the resolution, and even if the Board of Education passes it (a scenario Decatur thinks is likely), several groups have threatened legal action.

“If things are put on hold, and the [presidential] administration changes in November, there’s a reasonable chance that all of this just gets erased,” Decatur said. “The worst-case scenario is that we spend four months getting ourselves in compliance with the law, the administration changes, and we change everything back again.”

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