2014 Influence List: Enforcer

U. of California at Santa Barbara

December 15, 2014

Catherine E. Lhamon

When Democratic senators suggested that Catherine E. Lhamon might need more tools to get colleges to comply with the gender-equity law known as Title IX, she brushed them off with her characteristic confidence.

"I think I have all the authority I need," said Ms. Lhamon, who took over last year as assistant secretary for the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Ms. Lhamon, 43, is leading the Obama administration’s charge to enforce Title IX. Under the law, colleges that fail to investigate and resolve complaints of sexual misconduct face a stiff penalty: loss of all federal funds.

Ms. Lhamon says that’s a big enough stick. And while the department has never used it, she says she has been close to doing so four times since she took office 16 months ago. "Do not think it’s an empty threat," she warned a group of college officials last summer.

They seem to believe her. Ms. Lhamon has taken on some powerful universities and won. Both Tufts and Princeton had been under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights for years. Then Ms. Lhamon came into office and "wrestled them to the ground," as one lawyer who works with colleges on sexual-assault cases put it, getting them to sign agreements this year acknowledging that they had violated Title IX. Both institutions agreed to take several steps to improve their handling of sexual-assault complaints.

Before those cases—and one involving the Virginia Military Institute in May—most OCR investigations resulted in resolution agreements where colleges simply committed to changing their policies but did not acknowledge they’d broken the law. In 2012, for instance, a settlement between the department and Yale University criticized some of Yale’s previous policies but praised its progress toward a better environment for students.

"She’s come into a real firefight, and she’s the right person for what needs to be done," says Andrew T. Miltenberg, a lawyer who handles sex-assault cases. "There’s nothing to indicate she’s favoring or not favoring anyone."

The number of institutions the department is investigating for mishandling allegations of sexual violence seems to grow each week. It currently stands at 91. Ms. Lhamon acknowledges that’s a daunting number to deal with. "It is among many issues that keep me awake at night," she says.

Before coming to Washington in August 2013, Ms. Lhamon spent nearly two decades as a celebrated California civil-rights litigator. In her short time in the federal job, she has standardized the way her office approaches investigations and resolutions to ensure that each of its regional offices negotiates with institutions in the same way. And she has forced colleges to take some uncomfortable steps: Reconsider old sexual-assault cases where OCR determined institutions misapplied the law, and pay rape victims for educational losses. Some of those payments have already amounted to tens of thousands of dollars.

Not everyone is happy with Ms. Lhamon’s leadership. Some think that she and the Obama administration have been overzealous and that OCR’s guidance has been too prescriptive. They cite the 53-page Q&A document her office issued in April on how institutions should handle sexual-assault complaints.

Meanwhile, some victims’-rights advocates believe Ms. Lhamon hasn’t gone far enough. "If she had removed federal money, she would have fulfilled her job," says Laura Dunn, who runs an organization called SurvJustice. "But she hasn’t."

Ms. Lhamon says the OCR post is her "fantasy job." She has two young daughters, ages 8 and 10, and she wants higher education to clean up its act before they are in college. "I hope very much," she says, "that their experience is not marked by sexual violence."

—Robin Wilson