Amidst disasters both natural (Hurricane Irma) and man-made (Kim Jong-un, a malfunctioning government in Washington), one piece of important good news came this past week: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos indicated her intention to roll back the directives in the infamous “Dear Colleague” letter of the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. That attack on basic American values has been substantial, and this is a big step forward. The original “guidance” was itself a direct violation of U.S. law–no hearings were held, for example. More fundamental, however, was the usurpation of basic rights of those accused of sexual assault, such as the right to an impartial hearing, and the presumption of innocence until guilt is demonstrated via clear and convincing evidence (or, “above a reasonable doubt”). Also, discouraged in the infamous letter was the right of those charged to cross-examine accusers, the constitutional protection of those accused from double jeopardy, the separation of those prosecuting a case from those deciding innocence or guilt, and full rights of legal counsel. All these basic protections under our Constitution went by the wayside. The Department of Education has been promoting Star Chamber justice on college campuses.
• The colleges are partly to blame for not waging a vigorous opposition to the “guidance” from the beginning, mainly fearing the loss of federal funds; they would have succeeded in softening the regulations had they fought;
• The colleges in part did not fight the “dear colleague letter” because many in the academy welcome the new progressive mindset that is fundamentally authoritarian and contemptuous of alternative viewpoints and the Bill of Rights, similar to that of other authoritarian regimes ranging from the Spanish Inquisition to the Islamic State;
• Allegations of rape or related felonies should be adjudicated according to state laws, not by university officials, should require police investigation, formal charges made by prosecutors or grand juries, and judicial resolution by courts with impartial judges and juries;
• American federalism and the distinctive decentralized character of American higher education is severely damaged by having Washington, not state governments or universities themselves, determine campus disciplinary procedures;
• The creeping authoritarianism in the academy goes far beyond the “dear colleague” letter, involving other unjust attacks on students and faculty over other non-rape related issues;
• Innocent (or at least “not clearly guilty”) individuals punished through being kicked out of school, or otherwise damaged reputation-wise or monetarily, should be able to get very substantial financial payments from offending schools, and that legal liability should extend to those college enforcers using, un-American, Gestapo-like techniques.
Some of these points are pretty self-explanatory and much discussed previously. Let me speak, however, from personal experience about the fifth point above, about “creeping authoritarianism.” I work at a quintessentially American, typical state university. A decade or so ago, a student research assistant in a dorm came to me in a panic and said he had been subject to disciplinary proceedings–over his own beliefs. A social conservative, he had put up some positive references on his personal web site about the virtues of traditional marriage. He was called in by the residence hall leadership and sternly warned that this was “homophobic” and that he should remove those materials (about then, agreeing with the student, the voters of Ohio overwhelmingly voted against permitting gay marriage). A little later, the student walked out of a mandated meeting where the speaker was vehemently attacking the Republican candidate for governor, the student reasoning a state university should not be using its resources to support or oppose political campaigns. He was called into a disciplinary hearing, which I disrupted, threatening severe legal action (the University legal counsel apparently agreed with me, and the disciplinary actions were later reduced or dropped). Basically, a student was being persecuted because he did not share the politically correct leftish perspective of the administration.
More recently, a tenured female professor friend of mine was hounded out of the university, being relentlessly attacked and insulted by lawyers from the office of “equity and civil rights compliance.” The professor was asked to give a student with disabilities double time on class tests. She agreed with respect to major exams, but said it was impossible to do so for pop quizzes without disrupting the education of large number of other members of the class. She was then called into an investigatory meeting by the university’s “equity” mafia, which I, not invited, attended. My professor friend was treated obnoxiously, without respect, with a clear presumption she was guilty until proven innocent. Later on, a disabled student threatened to kill her (a police report verifies this), but the university not only did not punish that student, but continued to attack the professor for alleged insensitivity to disabled student needs. She finally agreed to leave the university after 29 years of service rather than undergo more harassment and humiliation.
From talking with colleagues at other universities, stories like these are not uncommon. A student residence life staff often tries to brainwash students and condemn them for not adhering to the politically correct leftish view of the moment. Faculty are likewise harassed and sometimes told not to offend students by saying things that might somehow be “hurtful.” Speakers are shouted down. On one campus, a white professor was harassed for not agreeing to outrageously racist militant demands that white persons stay off campus and stop teaching for a day. Were there angry protests from the American Association of University Professors, the ACLU, or the liberal press? No. Shame. Shame. Shame.
Three cheers for Betsy DeVos for taking a first step towards ending this madness.
Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.