It may become harder for universities to expel someone suspected of sexual assault if proposals announced on Friday by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos become law. The proposed regulations will let colleges amend the standard of proof needed from "preponderance of evidence" – meaning the evidence is more convincing and has probable truth or accuracy – to the higher standard of "clear and convincing evidence."
Some on USC's campus believe the policy change proposed by DeVos is a good thing.
Armaan Premjee, a junior at USC studying business administration, was accused by another student of sexual assault in a dorm last summer. The L.A. County Superior Court dismissed Premjee's case on July 23. In the transcript of the ruling, the judge cited lack of evidence that the act had actually occurred, said the evidence did not lead to reasonable cause of strong suspicion, and believed that consent throughout the incidents of the case were reasons for dismissal.
Premjee is under investigation with the Title IX office at USC.
"I don't like the regulations set by the Obama administration," he said. "I'm glad they're being reformed because Title IX currently uses a lower standard of proof. Students can be proven innocent in court, but still be expelled or suspended from the university. I think that that's a very unfair process. We're basically making schools and administrators into judges and juries."
On the other side of the issue is Ellen Ford, a master's student studying specialized journalism with a focus on the arts. She is a survivor of sexual assault. Her experience was life-threatening, resulting in hospitalization and surgery.
"It really is a cultural thing," Ford said. "That should come from the way that we interact with each other as people, in my personal opinion. USC and the government obviously can put in these measures that say, 'Don't rape people.' It can only go so far if our society isn't treating each other with respect."
In a press release, DeVos said, "This interim guidance will help schools as they work to combat sexual misconduct and will treat all students fairly." "Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head-on. There will be no more sweeping them under the rug. But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes."
She said that the Trump administration would overturn guidelines enacted by the Obama administration in 2011 and 2014.
"The [previous guidelines] ignored notice and comment requirements, created a system that lacked basic elements of due process and failed to ensure fundamental fairness," DeVos' department added in the press release.
From a survivor's point of view, Ford believes the preponderance of evidence, or lower standard of proof, is extremely important.
"It's already so difficult to come forward with this," she said. "It's embarrassing and it's hard to tell people and talk about this. That is enough of a burden."
Ginger Clark, a professor of clinical education at USC Rossier School of Education and an expert on sexual abuse and counseling, thinks there are better ways to address the issue.
"Given the statistics on false accusations of sexual assault, which are low, the amount of real estate she devoted to talking about the oppression of the accused was disturbing," Clark said, referring to DeVos. "Yes, the accused have and deserve the right to due process, and should be assumed not responsible until proven otherwise. Yes, many systems are inherently flawed, and need improvement. There is no question. But her speech did not engender faith that her intention was the improve the system."
"It sounded more like an effort to bring us back to a time when it was assumed that accusations of rape are really attempts to get revenge or rehabilitate one's reputation. An extremely damaging and outdated position to take, given what we know about campus sexual assault today."
So, what does this mean for USC and other universities?
A Q&A issued by DeVos states that schools will have the discretion to apply either the current "preponderance of evidence" standard or the "clear and convincing evidence" measure.
USC Provost Michael Quick recently emailed the community an update on Title IX, the legal guidelines prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, including the regulations that establish that schools must address sexual misconduct if they receive any form of federal funds.
The memo on Sept. 8 was in response to rumors that the Department of Education was going to eliminate some regulations. It said that USC will continue to take the issue of sexual misconduct seriously. "…This university will not tolerate sexual misconduct in any form, whether it is sexual violence, abuse, stalking, intimate partner violence, harassment, or discrimination," the university emphasized.
The provost's memo also stated that the USC will "continually review federal guidelines as well as California state law in determining modifications to our policies."
The memo did not state how possible changes to Title IX regulations could modify existing policies.
As a private institution, USC has its own policies when it comes to on-campus sexual misconduct. As of today, the policy states that the standard of proof is in line with the Obama-era regulations. That is, based on all the evidence, the university will rule on the likelihood of whether the accused person committed the sexual misconduct.
Clark believes it's not only policies, but cultural changes that will make a difference in California universities.
"My belief is that we need far more focus on prevention than we have had," she said. "Perhaps the threat of moving backwards will stimulate conversations about how to enhance prevention through culture change, and how to improve adjudication systems at the same time."
USC's Title IX office would not immediately comment on the DeVos announcement. The provost's communications director said Quick would not be putting out a statement regarding Title IX on Monday.
Updated on 9/26/17 at 4:55 P.M. to correct a professional title.
Ginger Clark is a professor of clinical education. A previous version of this article said she is an associate professor of clinical education.