Education Secretary Betsy DeVos showed she does not understand this reality when she addressed the issue last Friday at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, imploring universities to heighten the standards of evidence they use in examining sexual crimes and administering punishment.
“To be very clear, one sexual assault is one too many. It is horrible and lamentable, but the current failed system didn’t work for students, it didn’t work for institutions, it didn’t work for anyone,” the Detroit News reported her saying. “It didn’t work because unelected and unaccountable political appointees pushed the guidance through without any period for comment from those who walk side-by-side students every day. The time for inefficient and ineffective mandates is over.”
DeVos’ interim guidelines will allow colleges to mold their policies around the “preponderance of the evidence” standard created by the Obama Administration or her own standard, which calls for “clear and convincing evidence.”
But neither strategy confronts the most pressing part of the problem — the students themselves.
Any threat of punishment and legal recourse will naturally discourage people from committing sexual misconduct, but as DeVos pointed out, that is not working — but it seems she doesn’t understand why. These crimes exist on campuses because students who sexually assault other students don’t care to lead moral lives and their schools do nothing to combat the problem out of which these serious symptoms grow.
Most colleges give their incoming students a type of crash course, usually online, that schools them in Title IX and what types of sexual encounters comply with those standards. Harvard University, for example, has its Title IX Resource Guide, a website that details which signs can indicate welcomed or unwelcomed activity, defines incapacitation, lays out jurisdiction and retaliation, and lists relevant state laws.
The section explaining unwelcome conduct states that “whether conduct is unwelcome is determined based on the totality of the circumstances, including various objective and subjective factors,” before it lists seven points to know about unwelcome conduct.
The section offers no explanation as to why students are obliged to behave one way and not the other. The only statement that breaches an end of proper sexual conduct explains that Harvard wants to maintain a healthy and safe environment for everyone involved with the university.
That’s it. Rape and molestation should be avoided so students can learn and professors can teach.
Harvard, which has some of the highest levels of sexual assault on its campus, does not even address those who commit, or who may commit, these crimes. The university fails to convince potential perpetrators to do what is right because they do not explain why appropriate behavior is appropriate, other than that it “helps maintaining a safe and healthy educational and work environment.”
Guidelines like these, lists of rules, slaps on the wrists, possible punishments, and legal consequences will never extinguish the flames of immorality igniting campuses. Only morality can do that. But to instill morality in students, schools must teach it before they hold students to it.
If students learned about virtues like moderation and purity, they might view sex as an intimate act best shared between two consenting persons, even if they deny the outdated belief that sex belongs in the context of marriage. If schools merely hinted at good reasons for appropriate, respectful sexual behavior like human dignity and basic kindergarten ethics, fewer victims would be subjected to a lifetime of physical and psychological trauma from an act so heinous as rape.
DeVos has prompted schools to reconsider their policies on sexual assault. While they revise standards of evidence, administrators need to find a way to teach their students why humans should treat other humans with respect in every interaction.
Katherine Scheu is a senior studying French.