On May 1, the U.S. Department of Education released the names of 55 colleges and universities being investigated for their handling of sexual assault complaints.
This public release of a comprehensive list of colleges under federal investigation is unprecedented. It also has significant implications—and even opportunities—for institutions of higher learning.
“We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights,” the Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Catherine E. Lhamon, said in a written statement. “We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue.”
The Obama administration is clearly focused on the issue. On April 29, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault released its first report, which included recommendations for how colleges should handle sexual violence. The task force, which was created by President Obama in January, reported that one out of every five female college students is assaulted—often by someone the victim knows.
Prior to yesterday’s release of the names of targeted institutions, the Education Department would either confirm or deny that an investigation was taking place when asked, but did not publish a list of affected institutions. Going forward, the department will maintain an updated list of schools facing sexual assault investigations, which it will make available upon request.
Institutions can make it onto this ignoble list in a variety of ways. Some investigations are prompted by complaints submitted directly to the department. Others are initiated by the department after being triggered by other factors, such as news stories.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who stated that he believes in transparency, commented that the department had extensively debated the propriety of releasing the list. During a White House media briefing, Duncan stated: “We’ll investigate; we’ll go where the facts are. And where they have done everything perfectly, we’ll be very loud and clear that they’ve done everything perfectly.”
As most will agree, the federal attention being given to violent assaults on campus is a positive development. All responsible institutions share in the administration’s intention to reduce, and even eliminate this scourge—which is primarily borne by women on college campuses.
Duncan was right to note that “No one probably loves to have their name on that list.” Educational institutions certainly do not want to have their names on such a list. Moreover, all institutions should be doing as much as they can to eliminate the threat of sexual assault—and of all forms of violent crime—from their campuses.
Educational institutions that are targets of similar investigations must aggressively get out in front of the allegations, identify and remedy problems if they exist, and defend against any allegations that are without merit.
Schools need to take Secretary Duncan at his word—that there is an “absolute zero presumption” of guilt for any impacted institution.” A well-represented college or university will not only demonstrate its full commitment to and compliance with the antidiscrimination provisions of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 , but will also seek to take the secretary up on his offer—to “be very loud and clear that they’ve done everything perfectly.” An institution that finds itself wrongfully placed on the list should urge the administration to sing the praises of the institution, as promised.
Seen in this light, the administration’s new policy can help create safer campuses for students, and enhance the reputations of institutions that are dedicated to staying out in front of this issue.