When Donald Trump won the presidential election on an in-your-face anti-PC platform, we speculated about dramatic steps his administration might take to curb the Office for Civil Rights in Education—the federal agency that under President Obama came to be closely associated with campus social justice causes. Possible steps included moving the OCR from the Department of Education to the more institutionally conservative Department of Justice, or even eliminating the OCR altogether.
The administration has so far not attempted this kind of radical shakeup. However, its new budget does put some pressure on the OCR, holding funding constant while cutting back on staffing. Inside Higher Education has a one-sided piece airing criticisms of the proposal from campus sexual assault activists:
When students file a complaint that their institution mishandled or ignored claims of sexual assault or harassment, they can often expect to wait years for a resolution from the Department of Education. Those delays frustrate not only those bringing the complaints but colleges that remain under prolonged investigation as well.
Advocates say that problem would be exacerbated by cuts to staffing at the department’s Office for Civil Rights included in last month’s White House budget proposal. Under the Obama administration, OCR took on an increasingly prominent role in responding to sexual assaults on campus — and in pressuring colleges and universities themselves to take more aggressive action on the issue. The budget maintains level funding for the office but calls for reducing full-time staffing by 7 percent to 523 employees.
The truth, however, is that the OCR is in need of pruning. It has had a major hand in many of the most corrosive trends in higher education since 2011, including due process violations, restrictive speech codes, and bloated administrative staffs—related phenomena that the Harvard Law professors Jacob Gersen and Jeannie Suk approximate with the term “bureaucratic sex creep.” The OCR has has stretched the limits of its authority to make campus bureaucracies more coercive and punitive, leaning on them to erect biased “courts” and discipline more students. It’s unclear whether this approach has reduced the rate of campus sexual misconduct, and if so, whether this was worth the harm to civil liberties and academic freedom.
A productive agenda for addressing the campus sex wars would involve legislation clearly delineating the OCR’s authority and requiring (to the extent possible) that police, rather than amateur campus bureaucrats, take the lead in addressing the crime of sexual assault. It would also involve nominating a competent and experienced director to lead the agency responsibly so that it fulfills its mandate to investigate instances of misconduct without infringing on protected free speech or due process rights. The Trump Administration, for its part, has shown little interest in legislation reforming the agency (understandable, given its other priorities) and has not put forward a permanent nominee to lead it (the acting director is a right-wing firebrand with little relevant experience).
So while the Trump Administration isn’t covering itself in glory with its handling of OCR politics, its plan to modestly reduce the agency’s overzealous staff is, contrary to the fretting from the leftwing activists who controlled the agency during the last administration, a step in the right direction.