Editorial | Change in direction

Editorial | Change in direction

Colleges and universities will be getting new direction on how to conduct student disciplinary proceedings.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is under fire again, this time for proposing changes in how universities oversee disciplinary hearings for students accused of sexual misconduct. Critics charge — mistakenly — the modifications represent a setback for female students.

The new rules, among other things, require colleges and universities to conduct impartial investigations, share any evidence gathered by investigators with the accused and the accuser and allow both to question each other during any disciplinary hearing the universities hold. In other words, they're trying to restore some credible due process to an accusatory hearing that carries potentially serious penalties for wrongdoers.

University administrators ought to be giving thanks for the proposed guidelines — they should go a long way to limit legal liability they face under current rules that make it very difficult for an accused person to get a fair hearing.

The new rules, which have the force of law, will not take effect until after the education department completes a public comment period. Although still in the review stage, the proposed rules were leaked last week to the news media. Given the way Washington, D.C., usually operates, it seems safe to assume that opponents of the rule changes arranged for premature disclosure as a means of sabotaging the effort.

That's not going to happen. DeVos is committed to bringing changes to a process desperately in need of them.

That's why she rescinded a 2011 Obama administration guidance letter that threatened colleges and universities with a loss of federal funds unless they stepped up campus measures aimed at discouraging sexual misconduct.

That's a laudatory goal. But many colleges immediately implemented measures that made a farce of the idea that an accused is entitled to anything resembling a fair hearing.

The University of Illinois is among the many violators. At least that's what U.S. Judge Colin Bruce noted recently in an opinion he wrote in a case brought by a former UI student thrown out of school for alleged sexual misconduct involving an intoxicated female student.

Bruce expressed "grave concern and serious doubt over the constitutionality of the UI's investigatory and adjudicatory process" because the accused was not afforded "a meaningful opportunity to be heard."

Bruce's concerns pretty much sum up the problem — an environment where accusation is tantamount to guilt. Too many colleges and universities take the position that affording the accused an opportunity to contest the charges against him is an unnecessarily formality in the rush to judgment.

The courts aren't going to stand for that kind of ideologically driven chicanery.

Here's another change that makes sense.

The proposed rules limit university jurisdiction to interactions involving students that take place on campus or within their own programs. No longer will off-campus incidents — essentially, allegations of criminal conduct — come under the purview of untrained investigative amateurs in way over their heads.

Institutions will be free to retrain the "preponderance of the evidence" standard or adopt a higher "clear and convincing evidence" standard. The Obama administration urged the lesser standard of preponderance of the evidence standard.

One critic suggested the new rules reflect a "tacit endorsement of making campuses a safer place to commit sexual assault."

But that's the wrong way to look at measures designed to facilitate a fair hearing for all concerned. They're designed to bring needed balance to a process meant to serve the best interests of all students.

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