An important turning point in the battle waged against campus sexual assault was the U.S. Department of Education’s 2011 Dear Colleague letter, clarifying the obligations of post-secondary schools and school districts under Title IX to address sexual violence. Title IX, previously associated more with equal access to sports rather than sexual violence, is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity that receives federal funding. The Dear Colleague letter provided much-needed guidance on things like grievance procedures, education, prevention, remedies, and enforcement and heralded a shift in expectations and commitment to ensuring equitable educational environments conducive to learning.
But the announcement made Friday by the Department of Education that the 2011 guidance has been rescinded leaves anti-sexual violence advocates angered that the current administration is reversing the significant forward progress against sexual violence on college campuses, undermining Title IX and leaving student survivors of sexual assault unprotected.
That’s not the only consequence we should be worrying about.
While sexual violence in higher education has received more visibility, sexual harassment in the workplace has also grabbed headlines, particularly in the tech and media industries. Recent high-profile cases – such as the recent lawsuit alleging repeated sexual harassment at Social Finance Inc., the now-infamous Google “manifesto,” or Unite Here’s report on the hospitality industry – have revealed the pervasive practice of women being demeaned in the workplace, and the sometimes outright hostility to their inclusion in those same spaces. Of course, many of the employees contributing to this culture must have earned their necessary credentials in places of higher education. What else did they learn – or not learn – in those places?
Preventing sexual violence is at its most basic level affirming the humanity of each individual, and this requires cultivating a cultural norm of intolerance of sexual violence. When I was the executive director of a rape crisis center, our educators went into K-12 classrooms and discussed the importance of consent and respecting bodily integrity. Beginning these conversations at a young age laid the groundwork for more complex conversations about intimate violence and harassment as students grew older and entered college.
But as a society, we are catching up to the reality that far too few of us – or our children – have ever had anyone talk to them about consent or harassment. Before the 2011 Dear Colleague letter, the absence of a robust application of Title IX in education – from kindergarten through college – meant that there was a lack of accountability for sexual violence and educational environments not conducive to learning for victims. The tolerance for sexual violence in our society has been reflected not only in our schools, but also in workplaces that are rendered inhospitable by sexual harassment. In the 1970’s, advocates for gender equity like Women Employed worked tirelessly to name sexual harassment and shine a light on how devastating such misconduct was to working women. Decades later, while we have more language and policies and certainly have made progress, we still struggle with solutions, leaving in place a significant barrier to women achieving economic equity.
Higher education is supposed to prepare young people for the workforce, in terms of applicable knowledge, as well as social norms. Not to mention that colleges are often workplaces for students as well. If sexual harassment is tolerated in school by those at the highest levels, why wouldn’t students believe that it will be tolerated in what comes after college – the workplace?
Certainly, efforts to address college sexual assault even with the Dear Colleague letter guidance have room for improvement. But Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has already signaled a regressive and inaccurate understanding of Title IX, calling the Dear Colleague letter guidance a failure and repeating some of the misleading false equivalencies trumpeted by men’s rights activists. Student survivors and advocates across the nation, like End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX and the National Women’s Law Center, as well as locally like Rape Victim Advocates, have emphasized that Title IX is still the law, and they have vowed to fight to protect survivors and sustain forward momentum in making educational institutions safe for all. And in Illinois, we are fortunate to have the Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act, which requires Illinois schools to respond adequately and fairly to complaints of sexual violence – requirements that will stand regardless of what happened Friday. But students in Illinois schools certainly won’t just go on to work in Illinois, nor is the Illinois workforce educated only in the state.
How we understand and respond to sexual violence in all its forms has consequences for whether we truly create educational and employment environments that cultivate equitable treatment and opportunities for success. The consequences are not limited to our educational institutions alone; the impact ripples into our workplaces and our lives.
DeVos has clearly sided with denying survivors the right to appeal cases, using a different evidentiary standard that gives a default advantage to perpetrators, and letting cases drag on – in other words, turning back the clock. We have to ensure that the march of progress continues forward. We have to use the opportunity to demand that institutions of higher education continue to utilize clear policies and practices that unequivocally condemn sexual violence. Write your college president as a student, parent or as an alumnae and demand that they hold the line. Ensure that your K-12 schools also understand that they are subject to Title IX. Make sure your workplace treats sexual harassment seriously, as it is required to do under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The Department of Education is tasked with showing the way forward; in the wake of the department’s abdication of leadership, we must step up and demand better for ourselves, for our children, for our co-workers, for our schools, for our communities.
We can’t go back.
Sharmili Majmudar is Director of Strategic Partnerships at Women Employed, a non-profit organization advocating for economic equity for working women and their families. Majmudar was formerly the executive director of Rape Victim Advocates and has 25 years of experience in advocacy against gender-based violence.