Letter to Editor: Title IX and the climate for political discourse on Bucknell’s campus

Chris Ellis, Associate Professor of Political Science

Three weeks ago, I invited Dr. K.C. Johnson to come to Bucknell to talk about Title IX’s role in shaping how colleges respond to allegations of sexual assault. This talk came in response to Education Secretary Betsy Devos’s recent rescinding of the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, which proscribed specific procedures and general standards for how schools should both define sexual assault and harassment and adjudicate accusations of sexual assault and harassment.

Since then, we’ve seen several other campus events related to this issue, and increased campus discussion of Title IX and its impact. This is great! On a campus often accused of political apathy, any attention being called to a pressing political matter is welcome. Much of this discussion—particularly from students—has been remarkably sophisticated (see, e.g., Caroline Fassett’s nuanced and reflective article from a couple of weeks back discussing how she, a skeptic of Dr. Johnson, evaluated his talk). But some of it has been misrepresentative or dishonest, perhaps deliberately so. Let me try to clarify.

Dr. Johnson argued the following points:

1) That we think seriously about the obvious methodological problems inherent in some of the survey-based talking points (“1-in-4”, only 2-8 percent of accusations are false) that form the rationale for much of the Obama-era guidance, and work to develop a more holistic, intellectually honest way to understand the scope of the sexual assault issue on campus.

2) That we discuss whether it’s appropriate that most of America’s elite universities offer greater procedural protections for students accused of nearly every other infraction — from plagiarism to theft to assault and battery — than they give to students accused of sexual assault.

3) That we think about, even for a minute, what we are doing to fair judicial processes when we instruct people to use words like “survivor” and “perpetrator,” instead of “accused” and “accuser,” before a hearing has been held.

4) That we openly examine the training materials offered to those tasked with the difficult task of adjudicating sexual assault accusations, taking into account that federal courts have found that such procedures at many Universities use dangerous stereotyping and highly-contested (if not outright dubious) guidance designed to coach adjudicators into assuming guilt.

5) Most importantly, that we reflect on whether students at colleges who are accused of serious crimes, with life-altering consequences if found responsible, deserve some of basic civil liberties protections—the right to timely notice of charges, the right to all available evidence, the right to active legal representation, the right to cross-examine witnesses directly, and the basic presumption of innocence.

Full disclosure: I agree with all of these points. I welcomed the rescinding of the Dear Colleague letter, and look forward to a new set of guidance, likely to be issued next spring, that expands on-campus protections for accused students, perhaps even mandating that Universities institute polices (in terms of due process rights, evidentiary standards, and most importantly in terms of how things like ‘consent’ and “sexual assault” are defined, that mirror those used in the criminal justice system).

Others, of course, disagree, and I’m sure that they have valid reasons for doing so. I am happy to have a discussion on these things with anyone at any time. But thinking that these points may have some merit does not imply evidence of “misogyny,” “rape apology,” support for something that activists like to call “rape culture,” or any of the other absurd accusations that we’ve heard thrown around at Dr. Johnson’s work by some on campus (and, to a lesser extent, I’ve heard myself). The fact that more than 70 schools — including “Bucknell-like” places such as Colgate, Amherst, Middlebury, and Williams — have lost lawsuits after violating the civil rights of accused students, and that large numbers of law professors from the nation’s highest-ranked law schools have talked about the fundamental unfairness of the Dear Colleague processes, suggests that there is some merit to this point.

That it’s easier to dismiss other points of view as evil or stupid or misinformed than to critically engage with them is not surprising: it happens in ideological echo chambers all the time and if you’ve been on Bucknell’s campus during the past 24 months, you know what happens when all the loudest voices happen to have the same point of view. And it clearly happened here: I even had it suggested to me that the point of Dr. Johnson’s visit was to “expose” the self-evidently horrible views he was espousing, rather than critically engage with them. But it’s the antithesis of what a university education is supposed to be about. We can, and must, do better.

So let’s discuss this issue candidly, encouraging at the minimum a diversity of scholarly points of view to be heard and considered on their merits, free of hyperbole or distortion. For those on different sides who might not know where to start, I highly recommend Emily Joffe’s excellent three-part longform series in The Atlantic, or the letter written to the Department of Education by a group of feminist, tenured, Harvard Law School professors (Google: “Fairness for all Under Title IX”) that discusses the problems with the former guidance. For a longer read, try Northwestern University cultural critic Laura Kipnis’s darkly hilarious “Unwanted Advances,” a book I consider one of the most essential published this decade. Perhaps even engage with some of Johnson’s own work. You might disagree. But you might also learn something.

I deal with these works (as well as with material on this topic that challenges my own point of view) regularly in my Politics of College class. The response of essentially all students to these points—while often sharply critical—has been civil, productive and focused on engagement with ideas, not simple dismissal or ad-hominem attacks.

This has mirrored my experience with engaging with difficult material on other topics in other classes: Bucknell students are, almost without exception, excellent in engaging with controversial and sensitive material in a thoughtful way. The campus culture here is ripe to make Bucknell a national model of how intellectually vibrant, cross-ideological discussion of important political issues is supposed to work. I have learned through teaching this class that students, understandably, feel that they need the encouragement and permission from their mentors to engage these issues in this sort of higher-level manner. And I have learned that they, again understandably, don’t always feel like they have this permission. But most students are willing: this can be done.

We should continue this conversation: this issue—and dozens of other politically contentious issues—are deeply important, and worth having discussions about. But we should do it with an eye toward engaging and thinking seriously about how a variety of diverse perspectives serve to enrich the conversations that we have.

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