Recently, the University of Minnesota adjusted its sexual misconduct policy in response to last year’s football scandal and new federal recommendations. Last year, 10 Gophers football players were suspended for alleged sexual assault charges, which led to a team boycott. Earlier this year, the University of Minnesota hired a law firm to examine the current student conduct policy in order to recommend changes to the student conduct policy. Also earlier this year, Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued guidelines for colleges that receive complaints of sexual conduct by students. The move rescinded two sets of guidelines framed under the Obama Administration that attempted to force the higher education system to take cases of sexual assault more seriously. The new recommendations by the government now posit that the system was constructed unfairly for those accused, and that more must be done to increase the standard of evidence in deciding whether a student is held accountable for sexual assault.
This “preponderance of evidence” was upheld at numerous state institutions including Minnesota and California, and while many states around the country may still decide to uphold the lower burden of proof, the guidelines eliminate restrictions that force them to do so. This now allows many Universities to determine their own burden of proof for sexual assault, which has drawn harsh and widespread criticism on the impacts to the rights of survivors.
This past week, the University’s Board of Regents adopted a series of changes to their policy, including the provision of written notice of allegations, the allowance of the accused to respond in writing or in a hearing to their accusations and a redefinition of a student who “assists or abets” sexual misconduct. The impetus for the latter change was the general council’s suggestion that the former language allowed disproportionate disciplinary action to more students than was appropriate.
First, we applaud the University for not accepting the new federal guidelines completely. The Board of Regents was very clear about their intention to keep the same guidelines on the burden of proof, and that the University will still pursue all accounts of sexual assault and misconduct very seriously. Furthermore, we don’t believe that the changes in University policy hurt the University’s commitment to protecting survivors of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. It’s imperative that the focus on these investigations and any future changes in policy not forego protections for those that have suffered from such egregious violations, if true.
The University should focus its next steps to move beyond the construction of the code of conduct to the actual enforcement of the code of conduct. Creating more streamlined processes for people to report sexual misconduct and assault are vital. This process must take several things into consideration, including the exposure of the case in general, as well as swift and decisive consequences within the full scope of the law. As the University moves on to take public comments on the administration’s policy for sexual harassment, assault and violence, we urge the University to consider these suggestions.