Trump’s Education pick could roll back efforts to fight campus sexual assault

Betsy DeVos’ family foundation has long donated to organizations that side with students accused of rape — not their victims.

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, sits with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., before the start of their meeting on Capitol Hill, Dec. 1, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, sits with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., before the start of their meeting on Capitol Hill, Dec. 1, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, Michigan billionaire and philanthropist Betsy DeVos, has kept fairly silent on her plans for higher education. But if her charitable giving is any indication, then DeVos could worsen a crisis already plaguing college campuses across the country: sexual violence.

Nearly 20 percent of female college students report experiencing rape or sexual assault each year. Surprisingly, however, the DeVos family foundation has long donated to organizations that frequently side with students accused of rape and sexual abuse. For instance, IRS records show the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation made four donations, totaling $25,000, to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

FIRE has stirred controversy for its fierce dedication to individual rights, and the organization often provides legal counsel to students being investigated for sexual misconduct. Yet, the organization does little to protect assault victims.

In fact, the organization’s one-sided “protecting the unprotected” agenda has led FIRE to make troubling statements against any legislative attempt to prevent campus sexual assault.

In 2014, for instance, FIRE criticized California’s newly enacted “Yes Means Yes” law, the first law in the nation to set a standard for ‘affirmative consent.’ The legislation protects against unwanted sexual contact by requiring that students receive verifiable consent during sexual activity. Hundreds of colleges are now adopting the affirmative consent standard in their sexual assault policies.

But FIRE criticized California’s law as a “threat” to due process. As for the rights of the millions of college students who report experiencing rape or sexual assault each year, FIRE has remained largely silent.

“FIRE’s lawsuit aims to protect the nation from a range of unlawfully imposed mandates by deterring future administrative overreach in the area of student and faculty rights,” said the organization. Whether or not FIRE’s legal action and political agenda will impact campus proceedings for sexual misconduct cases remains to be seen. But it is clear that FIRE is staunchly opposed to federal efforts to protect assault victims.

If DeVos is confirmed as Education Secretary, she would preside over the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, a unit that has increasingly pushed colleges and universities to better respond to sexual violence.

While DeVos has not articulated her opinion on the Office for Civil Rights, FIRE has been vocal about its opposition to recent federal efforts to curb sexual assault. In 2011, for instance, the Office for Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague letter that included new Title IX guidance on how colleges should handle sexual assault complaints. The letter endorsed the use of the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which is commonly used in civil court cases, and requires a lower burden of proof than the “clear and convincing” standard. But FIRE recently argued that this standard of proof would “jeopardize” due-process rights for the accused and lead to false incriminations.

On other occasions, FIRE has dismissed sexual assault as a byproduct of women’s empowerment. “Unfortunately, much of the feminist ‘war on rape’ has conflated sexual assault with muddled, often alcohol-fueled, sexual encounters that involve miscommunication,” read one article published on RealClearPolitics and reposted on the group’s website, “perhaps bad behavior, but no criminal coercion.” For its part, FIRE alleges that colleges and universities unfairly treat students who are accused of sexual assault, and that they have mishandled these cases by not providing students due-process rights. While certainly true in some cases, the argument doesn’t always hold up.

Indeed, most victims of assault believe that most colleges haven’t done enough to investigate campus assault. And according to recent research, most victims continue to be afraid to report their experiences due to the belief that their perpetrators won’t be held accountable.

At the same time, it’s clear that “rape culture” on college campuses is a growing problem. In the last three years alone, the Office for Civil Rights has opened over 200 investigations into colleges and universities that have mishandled sexual violence reports, underscoring the need for the new guidance.

The DeVos donations to FIRE raise new concerns about Trump’s potential cabinet and their views towards sexual violence. The donations are also particularly worrisome given Trump’s past. After all, the president-elect himself has an extensive history of sexual assault allegations, and he maintains a flippant attitude towards these accusations. Trump was unapologetic after footage leaked of him bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy,” and he has repeatedly since dismissed this vulgar language as “locker room talk.”

In a statement on the impending DeVos confirmation hearings, FIRE confirmed that it has received donations from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation and reiterated its disapproval of the new Title IX guidance issued by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The statement also noted that the organization is presently challenging the legality of the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter in court.

“FIRE’s lawsuit aims to protect the nation from a range of unlawfully imposed mandates by deterring future administrative overreach in the area of student and faculty rights,” said the organization. Whether or not FIRE’s legal action and political agenda will impact campus proceedings for sexual misconduct cases remains to be seen. But it is clear that FIRE is staunchly opposed to federal efforts to protect assault victims.

This post originally attributed a column to FIRE that had been published by RealClearPolitics and reposted by FIRE.

Perpetual Baffour is a Research Assistant for the K-12 Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

Ulrich Boser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. He is a best-selling author, and his writings have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress.