Last week, the Obama administration released a report on sexual assault on campuses and took initial steps to show that it’s serious about enforcing Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education. The Department of Education released a list of fifty-five colleges and universities currently under investigation for possibly violating that law by mishandling complaints. These schools receive federal funds and so are required to play a role in preventing sexual assault and harassment from happening and promptly and thoroughly investigating claims when allegations are made. And since studies have found that nearly one in five undergraduate women experience attempted or completed sexual assault while in college, this issue demands attention.
The Education Department also made the bold move of announcing that Tufts University had recently fallen out of compliance after breaking an agreement to fix its violation. This willingness to name names—Tufts is the only school singled out in this way so far—marks a departure from the quieter approach the administration has typically taken, which involves a kind of settlement known as a voluntary resolution agreement. Activists say those agreements allow schools to avoid public scrutiny and keep whatever progress they’re making—or not making—under wraps. (According to the administration, showing up on the list of fifty-five isn’t proof of wrongdoing. Schools ended up there either because the Office of Civil Rights has received complaints about them or because it’s time to check whether they’re in compliance. But the newfound transparency is welcome.)
The administration’s actions come on the heels of years of activism on the part of student survivors of sexual assault who have made headlines by filing Title IX and Clery Act complaints and demanding that campus officials take them seriously. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault credits that work, acknowledging that “a new generation of student activists is effectively pressing for change, asking hard questions, and coming up with innovative ways to make our campuses safer.” In an interview this week, Alexandra Brodsky, a law student who filed a complaint against Yale as an undergraduate, gestured at the toll the sustained push has taken on campus organizers: “Title IX should let students think about schoolwork rather than thinking about rape.”
If just one message reaches the skeptics and backlash peddlers who argue that “female empowerment” and “mutual responsible behavior” is what’s needed on campus and not federal intervention, I hope it’s this one. The work of these survivors—some of whom could have chosen to stay quiet, blame themselves and keep their eyes narrowly focused on the prize of their diplomas—is exactly as Brodsky describes it: research, advocacy and organizing that the Department of Education has essentially “outsourced” to them.