Title IX's Transformation: R. Shep Melnick on the New Civil Rights Debate

There’s no better emblem of the complicated evolution of civil rights in America than the implementation of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. Originally passed to ensure equal access to educational resources, Title IX reads as follows:

“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.

Although a libertarian might bristle at Title IX’s financial involvement in education, the statute otherwise seems innocuous — requiring nothing more than equal treatment for students, regardless of gender.

Since the 1970s, however, women have not only achieved parity with men in college admissions, they have surpassed men in graduation rates. Thus, the purpose of Title IX seems largely to have been achieved.

As the cultural landscape has changed, however, the focus of anti-discrimination efforts has also shifted. After omen could no longer claim discrimination at the admissions level, bureaucrats started to advocate in other areas like athletics, where men traditionally received more resources in accord with their greater interest in sports (especially at the elite level). Most people are familiar with Title IX’s equalization of athletics, but in terms of peak controversy, this was a passing phase in the law’s evolution.

Now, educational institutions have become the prime battleground in a larger culture war that includes the debates over sexual harassment, due process, “rape culture,” and transgender rights. In 2016, Republicans argued that Title IX has been perverted “by bureaucrats — and by the [then] President of the United States — to impose a social and cultural revolution upon the American people.”

How did the seemingly uncontroversial notion of non-discrimination has become such a lightning rod in the American culture war?

R. Shep Melnick is a professor of American politics at Boston College, where he focuses on the intersection of law and politics. Melnick argues that the current enforcement of Title IX has transformed the act from its original intention by politically motivated bureaucrats. He recently wrote The Transformation of Title IX [@The Brookings Institution Press (2018)] as a response to the partisan vortex that has swallowed rational discourse about the law. Shep joined the show to discuss the problems of overly-zealous administrative lawmaking in the context of the Title IX debate.

Dear Colleague: Due Process is Done

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has the authority to issue new rules governing non-discrimination. The Administrative Procedure Act specifies that prior to a rule change, there must be a period for “notice-and-comment” by relevant parties in the educational institutions. The modern controversy hinges around a few legally questionable actions taken by the OCR in its administration of Title IX.

In 2011, the Obama administration issued new “guidelines” on sexual harassment to federally-funded universities that bypassed the standard notice-and-comment requirements for such changes. The administration claimed its guidelines constituted mere “clarifications” of earlier policies. In contrast, statements from the administration suggested that it was a sweeping overhaul of the entire campus culture as it relates to sexual harassment complaints. The infamous “Dear Colleague Letter” — directed from the OCR to all universities receiving federal funds — specified that a single sexual harassment complaint could trigger a lengthy investigation of the institution — turning actual victims and the accused into pawns in the larger culture war.

Worse, the letter required schools to use the lowest possible standard of evidence (a mere “preponderance”) in deciding the fate of the accused. While not an official criminal proceeding, these campus tribunals often determined whether a student would be marked for life as a sexual predator — effectively denying him his rights to “life, liberty and property” without due process.

As K.C. Johnson and Stuart Taylor, authors of The Campus Rape Frenzy wrote on the Volokh Conspiracy blog last year:

The letter required universities to allow accusers to appeal not-guilty findings, a form of double jeopardy. It further told schools to accelerate their adjudications, with a recommended 60-day limit. And, perhaps most important, OCR strongly discouraged cross-examination of accusers, given the procedures that most universities employed.

The path to Obama’s Dear Colleague Letter, Jan. 31, 2017

Perhaps most frighteningly, government publications began to lecture schools on what constitutes a healthy, mutually respectful sexual relationship. Bureaucrats this by redefining sexual harassment as a form of discrimination, but only when the act targets a member of a particular sex. Strangely, a bisexual who is an “equal opportunity” offender — targeting both men and women — does not fall under the purview of Title IX complaints.

Melnick notes that the OCR’s mandated “sea change,” coupled with the threat of losing federal funding, has given rise to a new bureaucracy of Title IX coordinators at every major university.

The Transgender Transformation and Rule by Letter

The second questionable form of Obama-era administrative rule-making seems to have turned the intent of Title IX on its head. New guidelines redefined the word “sex” as it appears in the act to correspond to the gender identity of a student whose rights are being called into question. This legal maneuvering is particularly suspect since the term “gender identity” entered the lexicon as a way to distinguish one’s identity from their biological sex.

Morever, many Obama-era mandates (e.g., requiring colleges to allow biological males to use women’s locker rooms), not only opened the door for novel claims of harassment and discrimination, but took administrative lawmaking to new heights (or depths) of absurdity.

The Office of Civil Rights cannot reasonably resolve every discrimination and harassment issue in a sane and apolitical manner from its perch in Washington. President Trump has repealed the Obama guidelines, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has called for an end of “rule by letter.” Melnick sees this as a rare instance of sound policy and transparency from the Trump administration, but there is always a risk that it will merely flip the script and use the transgender issue to fire up the Republican base’s own culture warriors.

Here’s a preview of my take:

If Trump decides to take a page from Obama’s playbook, he might further polarize some of the most important civil rights concerns of the day. While some on the left have allowed the persecution of innocent men with dubious claims of a campus “rape culture,” others on the right have sometimes found a convenient scapegoat among individuals who don’t map neatly onto either biological sex.

No one is arguing that transgender individuals should be denied equal access to educational facilities, and there are valid civil rights concerns that must to be worked out on a case-by-case basis.

Whenever strings are attached to federal grants, there is erosion of the American system of federalism and policy experimentation at the state and local level. In this way, Title IX has been abused to impose a one-size-fits-all solution across the nation’s universities.

The federal government should leave room for different approaches to be tested, and OCR should focus on the basic of civil rights and clear cut cases of discrimination. The courts remain open to remedy situations where schools fail to render a fair decision.

For a full and nuanced perspective on the most important civil rights issues of the day, look no further than my show this Sunday with Shep Melnick.

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