The former Education Department official who pressured colleges to make sweeping reforms on campus sexual assault during the Obama administration has been nominated to hold that same post once again.
The Biden administration on Thursday nominated Catherine E. Lhamon as assistant secretary for civil rights, which oversees the enforcement of Title IX, the gender-equity law. Lhamon led the civil-rights office from 2013 to 2017, a time when the Education Department made combating campus rape a top priority.
If the Senate confirms Lhamon, she’ll assume the top civil-rights role as the Biden administration begins weighing changes in the Title IX regulations championed by the former education secretary Betsy DeVos. Those regulations sought to protect the rights of students accused of sexual assault, many of whom believed they’d been unfairly punished because of the Obama administration’s push for colleges to take sexual assault seriously.
Suzanne B. Goldberg, a Columbia University law professor and former administrator, has been serving as acting assistant secretary for civil rights since January. She will continue to serve as a deputy assistant secretary in the civil-rights office.
The education secretary, Miguel A. Cardona, said in a statement that Lhamon had devoted her career to fighting on behalf of communities of color and other underprivileged groups, and would “continue to fight for fairness, equity, and justice for all of America’s students” as the civil-rights chief.
During Lhamon’s previous tenure as assistant secretary, the civil-rights office publicly went after colleges that it believed were failing victims of sexual misconduct and threatened to pull their federal funding. The Education Department has never used that nuclear option, but Lhamon said in 2014 that she had been close to doing so four times in her first 16 months in office.
Lhamon went to bat against prominent institutions, including Tufts University and the University of Virginia, and forced them to admit that they had violated Title IX for mishandling sexual-misconduct cases. In the past, colleges had signed resolution agreements with the Education Department committing to change, but hadn’t typically admitted wrongdoing.
Lhamon’s office opened hundreds of Title IX investigations into colleges and released an updated list of institutions under investigation each week. She directed her staff to conduct broad, systemic reviews of colleges’ handling of sexual-assault cases. The caseload was overwhelming, causing the reviews to drag on for years.
Critics, including Republican lawmakers, went after Lhamon for what they saw as government overreach. But Lhamon said the federal Title IX guidance issued during her tenure didn’t create new legal mandates; it simply clarified the obligations that colleges already had.
After leaving the Education Department, Lhamon served as chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and as legal-affairs secretary for Gov. Gavin Newsom of California. Most recently, she was deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council for Racial Justice and Equity.