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Higher ed advocates turn to national struggles against Trump’s agenda

US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has drawn attention from education advocates for many of her controversial stances on K-12 education, but academic unions and other advocates have also been tracking the Trump administration’s agenda for higher education. The consensus of many in education is that the agenda is dark, but the good news is that advocates are organizing in resistance.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos
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In July, DeVos held a set of meetings with advocates for those accused of sexual misconduct on campus in which she indicated that her department was willing to revisit and perhaps roll back many of the protections of Title IX, the 1972 amendment to the federal education code that states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title IX was strengthened under the Obama administration in response to complaints that campuses around the country had not taken accusations of sexual assault seriously.

BLAMING VICTIMS?

The complaint DeVos has chosen to respond to, however, isn’t the notion that sexual assault isn’t taken seriously, but rather that it is currently taken so seriously that the accused have been subjected to tribunals where they aren’t allowed to defend themselves. When it comes to Title IX, DeVos told reporters, “There are some things that are working. There are many things that are not working well.”

Candice Jackson, the acting head of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, was blunter, raising eyebrows when she told the New York Times, “The accusations – 90 percent of them – fall into the category of ‘We were both drunk,’ ‘We broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”

What campus advocates had found most troubling about DeVos’s day of meetings was that she had met with two “men’s rights groups,” the National Coalition for Men and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), which critics have likened to fringe groups on the alt-right.

Inside Higher Ed reported, “Advocates say both groups are known for lobbying against protections and for blaming women for assaults. They say Coalition for Men chapters have published names, photos and personal information of survivors of sexual assault, encouraging the harassment of women who report sexual violence. The group’s president, Harry Crouch, in a 2014 interview with Pacific Standard magazine cited the domestic violence case of former NFL player Ray Rice as an instance of women initiating domestic assault – what he termed the ‘men’s violence industry.’”

It continued, “The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified SAVE as part of a sphere of websites and forums ‘dedicated to savaging feminists in particular and women, very typically American women, in general.’”

Unions joined lawmakers and advocates for victims of sexual assault in protesting DeVos’s agenda on Title IX. “For months, DeVos’s Education Department has sent a chilling message to students and survivors by openly questioning Obama-era rules to protect students,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “DeVos’s meetings today with so-called men’s rights groups, and other fringe groups that want to silence sexual assault survivors’ voices, legitimatize those efforts. As a survivor of sexual violence, I will not sit back in silence while Betsy DeVos pretends that rape deniers have something useful to say about this topic.”

For academic unions, including the PSC, Title IX protections serve not just as an important form of protection for students, but for all campus workers who might be subjected to sexual violence or sexual harassment in the workplace.

For the PSC, this hit home last year when CUNY settled a DOE investigation finding that Hunter College had not made it clear to students and workers where to file Title IX complaints and did not adequately address complaints.

The Trump administration simply will not take these complaints and the need for Title IX protections nearly as seriously as the previous administration.

OTHER THREATS

But DeVos’s move on Title IX hardly stands in isolation; her meetings came just days after 19 state attorneys general sued the DOE for delaying implementing protections for students defrauded by for-profit colleges. The Washington Post reported, “The complaint, filed in US District Court on Thursday, accuses the Education Department of violating federal law by halting updates to a regulation known as the borrower defense to repayment. The rule, which dates to the 1990s, wipes away federal loans for students whose colleges used illegal or deceptive tactics to get them to borrow money to attend. The Obama administration revised it last year to simplify the claims process and shift more of the cost of discharging loans onto schools.”

DeVos claimed that the delay was necessary in order to attend to a federal suit brought by a group of for-profit colleges seeking to block the rules entirely, but Senator Elizabeth Warren said in a statement that this was an attempt by the administration to “make it easier for fly-by-night schools to cheat students.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is participating in the lawsuit, a move welcomed by unions as necessary to confront the scourge that is for-profit higher education. The lawsuit has also been observed to be a part of the effort by progressive state officials to act as a defense mechanism from the federal government’s conservative agenda.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement, “It is simply wrong that the Department of Education would want to do away with regulations that would protect students. It is no surprise that these regulations have been strongly opposed by for-profit schools, which have saddled students with crushing debts for college degrees. If that weren’t enough of a burden, some of the degrees provided by these for-profit institutions have failed to prepare students with a viable pathway to getting a good job and are often not even worth the paper on which they’re printed.”

And no conservative agenda on higher education would be complete without an attempt to undermine affirmative action by colleges and universities, a right upheld by the Supreme Court. As The New York Times reported in August, “The Trump administration is preparing to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.”

An executive directive against campus affirmative action is clearly an attempt to undermine what remains clearly protected by the judicial branch. Last year, conservative groups seeking an anti-affirmative action ruling from the Supreme Court were dealt a similar blow when groups seeking to end the agency-shop fee system for public-sector unions – hoping for a 5-4 ruling by the conservative majority – were left with a Court deadlock following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. This included Fisher v. University of Texas, in which a white applicant claimed affirmative action policies had wrongfully denied her acceptance based on her race.

A GOP AGENDA

American Association of University Professors First Vice President Hank Reichman said in a statement, “While the department does not explicitly mention affirmative action, it is clear that the effort – to be directed, it appears, by political appointees rather than career attorneys in the Office of Educational Opportunity – will target programs that offer opportunities to members of historically disadvantaged groups. That such programs remain necessary is demonstrated by Department of Education data showing that the gap in college enrollment between blacks and whites did not change measurably between 2003 and 2013.”

It’s often easy to demonize or even ridicule the Trump administration for being completely divorced from any sort of mainstream political agenda, but the fact of the matter is that the Education Department’s agenda, at all levels, is part and parcel of a decades-long Republican agenda to defund public education, move resources to the private sector and roll back protections for women and minorities.