As Federal Sex-Assault Investigations Multiply, Resolutions Remain Elusive

January 10, 2016

Over the past year and a half, the number of colleges finding themselves in the cross hairs of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights over their handling of sexual-assault cases has nearly tripled, to 161.

Being put on the list is just the start of a painstakingly detailed back-and-forth that takes, on average, more than a year to resolve.

How colleges end up on the list, how long they will remain there, and on what points they will be found in or out of compliance with the federal gender-equity law known as Title IX remain a mystery to most college officials.

To help shed light on the process, The Chronicle is introducing an online investigation tracker with which readers can browse comprehensive information about federal inquiries and sign up to receive alerts about important developments in those investigations.

A quick look at the database reveals some surprising statistics about the most recent wave of enforcement, which began in April 2011, when the department issued a pivotal "Dear Colleague" letter that spelled out colleges’ responsibilities under the law.

In 2014, 13 cases were resolved, and 70 were opened. Last year, only seven cases were resolved, and 106 were opened. The rapidly growing number of federal inquiries has created a significant backlog for investigators.

The completed cases, which involved a number of institutions that were found to have violated Title IX, including Michigan State University and the University of Virginia, reveal the department’s toughening demands and more-prescriptive approach toward compliance.

Sexual Assault Under Investigation

The Chronicle's online investigation tracker collects comprehensive information about each of the more than 300 federal inquiries into colleges' handling of sexual assault. Browse the tool now  and sign up to receive alerts about important developments.

Read more about sexual assault on campus:

In the Time of Trump, Colleges Start to ‘Make Title IX Our Own’
How a 20-Page Letter Changed the Way Higher Education Handles Sexual Assault
An Uncertain Future for Title IX-Compliance Consultants
What the Future Holds for the Federal Crackdown on Campus Sexual Assault
Should Colleges Be Judging Rape?
 Meanwhile, new cases are piling up. From May 2014, the first time the department publicized a list of colleges facing investigation, to December 2015, the number of colleges under investigation jumped from 55 to 161. With some colleges facing multiple inquiries, the number of cases that remain open has climbed to 197.

An additional 46 cases have been resolved, bringing the total number investigated since 2011 to 243. They were almost evenly split between public and private colleges, with 121 cases at 89 public colleges and 122 at 97 private colleges.

The fact that only 19 percent of the cases tracked in The Chronicle’s database have been resolved shows the challenges facing investigators. The Obama administration wants to hire 200 more full-time employees for the civil-rights office, and the office itself says it could use 500 more.

In the Pipeline

Investigations are triggered either by a civil-rights complaint or as the result of a proactive compliance review.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a four-year, public liberal-arts college, has the dubious distinction of having the most investigations, with five, one of which has been resolved.

A college spokesman said that privacy rules prevented officials from discussing the cases, but that the institution was cooperating fully with the federal government.

The civil-rights office has also kept the State University of New York system busy, with 10 investigations, three of which have been resolved.

The university that’s been on the hook the longest — for four and a half years — and is still waiting for a resolution is the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Among other cases inching their way through the pipeline:

  • A complaint that followed a racially charged rape accusation at Sarah Lawrence College has been under investigation for more than two years.
  • At Columbia University, a student, Emma Sulkowicz, carried a mattress around the campus to protest the university’s handling of her alleged rape. The accused student, whom a university panel found not responsible, has sued Columbia and the art instructor who oversaw Ms. Sulkowicz’s mattress project, saying they allowed her to defame him.
  • At James Madison University, the subject of another complaint, questions have been raised about how the university punished three fraternity members found responsible for sexually assaulting a female undergraduate during a spring-break trip.

One of the first cases resolved during the recent wave of federal enforcement was at the University of Notre Dame, where a 19-year-old freshman killed herself after reporting that a member of the football team had assaulted her. As part of a resolution agreement in 2011 with the federal government, Notre Dame agreed to provide alternative arrangements for complainants who do not want to be in the same room as the accused during disciplinary hearings and to give both complainants and the accused the right to appeal the outcome of a hearing.

Given the volume of information the civil-rights office asks of colleges, including details about policies, training materials, and investigation notes, it’s hardly surprising that investigations can drag on for years.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville, for instance, was given a list of 20 requests, one of which was for an Excel spreadsheet of every formal or informal student complaint or anonymous tip. The spreadsheet, the university was told, should include 16 categories of information for each complaint.

Institutional responses have typically involved colleges’ strengthening their sexual-assault policies and affirming their commitment to assault victims. Many colleges have hired Title IX investigators and conducted campus-climate surveys. Some have started programs to emphasize prevention techniques like bystander intervention.

Lawmakers in some states have weighed in by enacting affirmative-consent, or "yes means yes," policies.

Such changes have in some cases sparked a backlash by due-process advocates and men who say there’s been a rush to judgment. But others say that for all of the bureaucratic wrangling, the intense federal scrutiny has made campuses safer.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at

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