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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Title IX hysteria

I am supposed to live in an academic world where we value critical thinking skills. However, I have a growing concern about the clash between the skepticism required for reflective thought and the academic embrace of advocacy driven "scholarship". Nowhere is this more apparent than the recent injection of Title IX fever into college campuses, driven by a zealotus Federal bureaucracy.

Stories about an epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses have peppered the new outlets this past year. There is an industry out there looking for growth opportunities in this realm and some within the industry do not appear to be constrained by any desire to operate driven by fact or truth. One of the more egregious examples centered around the story that came out of the University of Virginia which was reported in Rolling Stone magazine. Whether it represented a complete or partial hoax is not entirely clear but there is no question that many if not most of the story's details were completely implausible.

However, recent initiatives driven by the Federal government have been driven by the impression that there is a huge problem on college campuses which can only be addressed by imposition of new rules driven by the Feds. The leverage they have is through the federalization of higher education funding which allows them to hold virtually all colleges hostage to whatever bureaucratic whim is fashionable in Washington DC.

The data which appears to justify such an overarching reach by the Feds has been called into question. There is a figure thrown around of 1 in 5 women as being a victim of sexual assault. This figure comes from a 2007 survey from the DOJ. Shortly after this study was reported in a story in Slate, a much larger survey done the Justice Department Bureau of Justice Statistics found a rate of 0.6%, substantially lower than the 20% figure previously reported. The former study involved two unnamed public universities while the latter surveyed 90,000 households and 160,000 individuals encompassing a much broader swath of students.

Imagine my surprise when I received an email from my Title IX compliance officer ordering me and all of my colleagues to take a course regarding sexual violence on campus. When the Feds say jump, we say, how high? This enterprise comes directly assault). Consistent with his activist roots, President Obama does not appear to be troubled by citation of the questionable 1 in 5 statistic. Advocacy is generally not effective when accompanied by any sort of self reflection of self skepticism.

To further my surprise, when I logged into the learning module to "educate" me and bring my into compliance with Title IX training, what statistic was placed immediately front and center? The same 1 in 5 number . I went online and did an internet search for Title IX training materials and what did I find in these as well? The same statistic. If I were grading a presentation by one of my students and I found that they had chosen to highlight a single study which was flawed and ignore information from more robust studies, they would get a failing grade.

 However, I soldiered through the roughly one hour course, clicking through a series of scenarios and questions, picking the "right" answers. The scenarios were ambiguous and the exercise resembled an indoctrination more than an educational activity. The scenarios dealt with perhaps the most complex, difficult, and ambiguous contexts of human interactions; sexual encounters and alcohol. Each one perhaps could serve as a starting point for thoughtful discussions which might go on for an entire semester and PhD ethics thesis. However, in this training session and in final exam, I was called upon to pick the one and only right answer.  I was being put on notice. No input was asked of me and there is essentially no mechanism where I can provide feedback on this. I understand. No feedback is wanted.

More than two dozen luminaries within the Harvard Law School have come out with a statement protesting their University's new rules regarding title IX. They have the standing and legal scholarship  to do  so. I do not. I know in my heart that continuation in the direction will end badly for most of us. The same people who vetted the online training courses have already shown they are not objective and will not let disparate opinions and data get in the way of furthering their particular lines of advocacy. Yet, they are ones who will be put in charge of adjudicating Title IX issues on campus. They will direct investigations, oversee tribunals, and render decisions.

Colleges and universities are in a similar position to me. They are not in a position to bargain with the Feds. To much money is at stake and there is no foreseeable pathway to success that can be envisioned by confrontation. The risk of losing the income stream driven by fully federalized tuition loans, federal research grants, and federal health care dollars. Monopsony in business has its downside.  

Human interactions are complex. Human sexual relations are the most complex subset of interactions within these interactions. I will be the first to admit we have not yet worked out all the rules on this realm, despite working on them for thousands of years. What the Federal government is trying to do is to create some sort of separate formal review and response structure on college campuses based upon the idea that an urgent need exists. That perceived need is likely based faulty data. The solutions proposed ignore basic concepts of due process and protection of the accused. It seems like such a bad idea. However, very few are in a position to raise our concerns.


  1. Trite, but universities with law schools better hang together with Harvard or they're all going to hang separately to paraphrase Franklin. With respect to remediating the state of university governance I would remind the leaders of these institutions of Edmund Burke "All that is need for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." I understand the need for pragmatism when institutions have indebted themselves to the government. But it is completely contrary to the mission of higher education to capitulate to the state's propaganda and carry out a political reeducation campaign. Mandatory climate change indoctrination next?

  2. I am a tenured professor at a small liberal arts university and this essay perfectly reflects the current hysteria here. Meeting after meeting, training sessions, workshops, all driven by this notion that college campuses are combat zones with rapists and sexual harassers lurking in every dark corner and student party. I am reminded of the McCarthy Red Scare of the early 50's. Many of our faculty have put up a good fight against our administration's Title IX policy, which turns faculty members from teachers, advisors, and mentors into spies and police, mandated to report even hearsay evidence of assault or harassment to the administration - even if the victim does not want it reported. I have steadfastly refused to sign a loyalty oath to this policy. I am now awaiting my fate - perhaps I will be beheaded a la Thomas More.