When Donald Trump appointed Candace E. Jackson to run the Office for Civil Rights in Education, the federal agency that spent much of its time during the Obama years pressuring colleges to reduce due process protections for students accused of sexual assault, we called it “one of his presidency’s most pointed acts of trolling.” A woman who had made her career highlighting Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual predation and Hillary Clinton’s alleged complicity would now be in charge of setting campus sexual assault policies—on behalf of the president whose campaign was nearly undone by the infamous Access Hollywood tape. Talk about twisting the knife.
But in one of Jackson’s first major appearances in her role as Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Civil Rights, she struck the right tone, promising that the agency would continue to vigorously enforce civil rights laws but also that it would back off some of the more zealous and ideological crusades that had set the agenda for the department during the last administration. Inside Higher Education reports on her comments this week to the National Association of College and University Attorneys:
“OCR has fallen into a pattern and practice of overreaching, of setting out to punish and embarrass institutions rather than appreciate their good faith and genuine desire to correct legitimate civil rights problems,” Jackson said.
She pointedly accused the Obama administration’s civil rights office of taking a “gotcha” approach to enforcing civil rights laws, of approaching “every complaint as a fishing expedition through which our field investigators have been told to keep searching until you find a violation rather than go where the evidence takes them.”
That expansive approach, combined with OCR leaders’ disinclination to let investigators in the agency’s regional offices exercise their judgment, Jackson and Wheeler argued, created a huge backlog of cases, keeping colleges — and the students who brought the complaints as well as those accused — in limbo for “months if not years.”
During the last half-decade of the Obama Administration, the agency’s leadership seemed determined to carry out the agenda of the most militant campus activists, who believed that colleges were in the midst of a full-blown rape crisis on par with what we usually associate with third world war zones. The result was the rise of an expensive Title IX-feminist bureaucracy throughout academia and a flurry of regulations that undermined civil liberties. While many colleges will likely retain their draconian policies, the new administration’s more modest approach is a step in the right direction.
But it is no way a lasting resolution to the campus sex wars. The next time a Democrat takes office, he or she is likely to appoint people from the pool of legal activists who ran the agency the last time around. That’s why we desperately need legislation clarifying the powers of the OCR, the scope of Title IX, and the nature of campus’ (and law enforcement’s) responsibilities in combating sexual assault. Until then, federal policy will remain in flux. And that’s not in the interest of colleges or sexual assault victims or the accused.