Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, is an especial hate figure for progressives, who are absolutely howling over changes in federal regulations covering how colleges and universities handle sexual-assault and sexual-harassment cases.
The changes coming might seem radical — if you were living in, say, pre-Magna Carta serfdom or under the jurisdiction of a particularly officious agent of the Spanish Inquisition. For 21st-century Americans, the right to question witnesses and accusers and to have an opportunity to evaluate the evidence presented against you should be the most obvious and unobjectionable thing in the world, but it isn’t — not on college campuses. And so thanks are due to Betsy DeVos.
Joe Biden has, of course, promised to reverse course immediately if elected president. We would think that Joe Biden, of all people, would appreciate the need for the full and fair investigation of such matters, given that his presidential aspirations are tangled up with an allegation from a former aide that he forcibly sexually assaulted her. Biden is determined that he will enjoy a full hearing in the matter and a chance to defend himself from allegations that, if the former vice president is to be believed, are not true. A sophomore at Oberlin deserves as much.
And so DeVos is pushing in the right direction. But there is the deeper question of why campus proceedings are appropriate at all to handle matters of sexual assault, which is a serious crime and the business of police and prosecutors, not the business of deans of students who have no particular competency in prosecuting felonies or misdemeanors. If a college wants to maintain a policy of expelling students convicted of certain crimes (or policing lower-stakes violations of campus policies), then that is entirely reasonable. But seeing to that conviction is the business of the criminal-justice system, not the higher-education system. Sexual assault is not a matter of the campus honor code — it is a question of serious criminal misconduct.
Where police departments and prosecutors are negligent or incompetent, as they sometimes show themselves to be in these matters, then that is an occasion for reforming the police departments and prosecutors’ offices — not for handing over law-enforcement duties to professors and college administrators. Of course, victims of sexual assault may be uncomfortable talking to police and may find the prospect of doing so traumatic; universities can support these students with counseling and mental-health services, but colleges cannot substitute themselves for the criminal-justice system.
Taking the police out of the equation invites abuse, from Lena Dunham’s hoax claim of having been raped by a College Republican at Oberlin to the Duke lacrosse case to Rolling Stone’s fictitious account of a rape at the University of Virginia. Rape hoaxes are a particularly odious instance of an all-too-common phenomenon of our times, the Jussie Smollett–style hate-crime hoax. The power of such claims makes them irresistible to political partisans and others in need of handy weapons for character assassination, as in the case of Brett Kavanaugh.
We should do all that we can to support the victims of sexual assault. And we are not doing the victims of crimes any favors by steering them away from treating these crimes like crimes and going to the police with them.