A response to KC Johnson’s lecture

Johnson advocates for University policies that treat all students equitably

Caroline Fassett, Print Managing Editor

KC Johnson, professor of history at Brooklyn College and a Fulbright scholar, delivered a lecture hosted by the Bucknell Institute of Public Policy and the departments of education and political science entitled “Title IX, Sexual Assault, and Due Process on College Campuses” on Nov. 6. In the lecture, Johnson criticized the Obama era re-interpretation of Title IX. Specifically, he took issue with how the Obama administration reinterpreted Title IX through a series of guidance documents that had “the effect and intent of making it more likely that once a student is accused of sexual assault, that student is more likely to be found guilty.” He praised current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s decision to withdraw these documents and implement campus regulations that (1) put the burden on the University to gather sufficient evidence that sexual assault occurred; (2) require that campus assault adjudicators or investigators be trained, and thereby be fair and not gender-biased; (3) require that the college provide written reports summarizing this evidence; and (4) allow the school to appeal to the decisions reached in court.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Johnson’s lecture was his analysis of false rape reports, which reportedly range between 2 and 8 percent. Johnson pointed out the common misconception that these percentages equate to the veracity of 92 to 98 percent of the reports. In truth, between 45 and 60 percent of allegations are found to be ambiguous or inconclusive. So, the vast majority of allegations made against perpetrators are not necessarily true, but are simply not found to be definitively false.

Johnson went on to discuss a number of “procedurally typical” court cases in the Obama era wherein a student sued another student on the grounds of sexual assault. Admittedly, these cases were eye-opening in terms of the inherent bias that appeared to favor the student who was allegedly assaulted. In the first case, a student from Amherst College, a college with institutional procedures that Johnson claimed to be “very similar to Bucknell,” lied to the court about the absence of text messages she had sent the same night of her alleged assault that were relevant to the assault. After she contradicted herself in court, the panel never asked her who these people were that she texted, and what exactly were in the texts that she sent; it was later revealed that they contained information that contradicted statements she had made in court. Nonetheless, the accused was found guilty, and immediately expelled from Amherst. In another case, a male student from Brandeis University accused his ex-boyfriend of 21 months of sexually assaulting him. When the issue was brought to court, for whatever reason the relationship between the students was not interpreted in the sense that they had dated for a protracted period of time; the accused was found guilty of sexually assaulting his partner because, among other reasons, he didn’t first gain consent from his unconscious partner in waking him up with good morning kisses, and because he had often looked at him in the nude without first asking him if that was acceptable. In the third case, an accused student from the University of Cincinnati was allowed to ask questions about the accuser’s report through a hearing panel in court, but neither the accuser nor the investigator appeared for the hearing. What ensued was what Johnson labeled a “bizarre exchange”: the student was asked if he had any questions about the report, and the student could only respond by saying that he had no one to whom he could pose them.

In concluding his lecture, Johnson argued that the most problematic aspect of the Obama era policy is that it does not require the accuser to be cross-examined in court. Moreover, he argued that when they are cross-examined, the way in which the cross-examination is conducted is guided by the presumption that the student claiming to be assaulted is telling the complete truth.

Admittedly, I found myself rather moved by Johnson’s position, though I had initially believed that it would repulse me to my core; prior to attending the event, I had assumed that Johnson was nothing more than an entitled white male interested in quelling the voices of the assaulted. Yet, I must admit that there was an irrepressible empathy interlaced into Johnson’s argument. While his lecture emphasized that the accused should never be presumed to be guilty, he argued this only in his interest to see both sides treated as equally as possible, not because he believed that the accuser should automatically be painted as the guilty party. As Johnson articulated, what troubled him about the Obama era policies was his belief that “college students are losing rights…purely because they are college students”; what concerned him was that the actions of the alleged perpetrators were not being justly considered, resulting in false convictions and thus unmerited pain and suffering.

I am aware of the ineluctable contentiousness of a subject like sexual assault. Thus, as persuasive as I found Johnson’s viewpoint to be, I am hesitant to say that I fully agree with it because I don’t know everything there is to know about Obama’s reinterpretation of Title IX, nor do I know everything there is to know about the advantages of DeVos’s own interpretation of Title IX. Additionally, I can’t help but feel that my perspective is somewhat skewed by who I am: a person who has never been sexually assaulted. Moreover, I am a person who has a twin brother, a brother who attends college just as I do, and who I can’t help but fear could someday be falsely accused of sexual assault and see the life he knows fall to pieces.

Nonetheless, I am so glad that I attended the event, and that I opened myself to a new viewpoint that I originally believed was ideologically, and thus irreparably, incompatible with my own viewpoints. I left the event talking to my friend about how ideal it would be to live in the world that feminist philosopher bell hooks envisions, one where “[f]undamentally mutual respect” defines all sexual experiences, as such respect “is essential to liberatory sexual practice.” We discussed a world in which all individuals understand that sexual pleasure and fulfillment is best, and thus should only be attained, in circumstances characterized by consensual agreement.

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