Several years into a heated national discussion of campus sexual assault, there’s still not much consensus on what will signal progress. One of the most active fronts is federal enforcement: Under the gender-equity law known as Title IX, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is now investigating 192 colleges for possibly mishandling reports of sexual violence.
But despite the high-profile crackdown, how those investigations come to be, and how they play out, isn’t always clear. The civil-rights office is opening investigations much faster than it’s resolving them: So far this year, 46 cases have been opened and only two resolved (one by the Department of Justice).
The Chronicle wants to shed light on the federal-enforcement process. We introduced a Title IX tracker in January, including all investigations in this wave of enforcement — since the civil-rights office issued a "Dear Colleague" letter, in April 2011, putting colleges on notice — and this week we added several new ways to use it. Our goal is to let people keep up with the process and other developments on campuses under review.
The tool now allows users to:
- Search federal investigations by institution or keyword.
- Filter investigations by status, state, and other factors, like how they were resolved and whether they were based on a complaint against a college (typically filed by a student or advocate) or a proactive "compliance review" by the Education Department.
- See a growing number of documents revealing the details of investigations that we are receiving through Freedom of Information Act requests.
- Sign up for weekly email alerts to keep up with investigations newly opened and resolved, along with other important updates (also available on Twitter at @tracktitleix).
Each college under review has a page showing one or more investigations and — separately — some context on how the issue of sexual assault has come up on that campus. We welcome your questions, suggestions, or additional information about any campus or the project as a whole through the site or by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How Investigations Unfold
Updating the Title IX tracker has revealed some insights. Fifty-two investigations are known to be based on complaints and 14 on compliance reviews. The number of community colleges now under review has roughly doubled since January of this year, to 10. And in cases resolved before 2014, two common documents (a letter of findings and a resolution agreement) are often not available. That could be, one expert suggests, because they include personally identifiable information, which more-recent versions — released more prominently, with greater attention on the enforcement process — do not.
One case shows how the timing of a lawsuit may affect the federal enforcement process. The government began to investigate the University of San Diego in December 2014 based on a complaint from a student who also sued the institution and two other students whom she accused of rape, her lawyer said. The investigation was "administratively closed" in March 2015, a designation that has been applied to other colleges’ cases, such as at Brandeis University and the University of Connecticut, when individuals who filed federal complaints also sued the institutions. Shortly after San Diego was dropped from the student’s lawsuit, the government opened another investigation there.
The resolution of one case hardly precludes another. The civil-rights office resolved an investigation at the University of Notre Dame in June 2011, soon after the department’s pivotal "Dear Colleague" letter on enforcement. The office recognized the university’s existing policies and preventive measures, but noted inconsistencies in the reporting process and said it would monitor progress under a resolution agreement. In February 2016, the office opened another investigation at Notre Dame.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is unusual in that it reached a private monetary settlement with a complainant that resolved a federal investigation. The university admitted no wrongdoing but paid the complainant, a former student, $77,000 and announced that it would better train its staff and revise its policies for responding to reports of sexual assault. The government closed the investigation through "early complaint resolution," which means the civil-rights office is not a party to the settlement.
Campuses and Sexual Misconduct
See more recent articles from The Chronicle about the pressure on colleges over their handling of sexual harassment and assault.
What prompts a compliance review, a spot check by the civil-rights office, is also unclear. Some people think that where the government chooses to look depends in part on informal tips and news reports. But a long-simmering scandal at Baylor University, including the institution’s own admission that it violated Title IX, has yet to spark a federal investigation.
There are other points of confusion. Some campuses face numerous investigations (Stanford University has five open, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Kansas State University each have four), while at other institutions (for example, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor), the civil-rights office has combined complaints. According to the office’s case-processing manual, it has discretion on whether to consolidate "substantially identical allegations" or those filed after an initial complaint.
And sometimes an investigation has been open for weeks or months before it appears on the government’s list of open cases. One opened at Kansas State in September 2015, for example, didn’t show up on the list until December of that year. That’s because some cases aren’t immediately coded as involving sexual violence, according to the Education Department.
Longtime leaders say they can’t recall another issue that has so consumed colleges. They look for clues in the federal-enforcement process to comply with the law and protect students. But with only two investigations resolved since a tortuously negotiated settlement at the University of Virginia, in September, that process is far from over. With a change of administration looming, The Chronicle will be tracking what happens.