Students across Illinois are calling for tougher campus policies on sexual harassment and misconduct as the Trump administration proposes changes to federal law that victims’ rights advocates say would weaken guidelines that are already lacking.
U.S. Dept. of Education head Betsy DeVos announced plans last week to implement the changes to a federal civil rights law known as Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on account of sex at schools that receive federal funding. DeVos said the changes would restore fairness to the way campuses conduct sexual misconduct investigations.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, more sexual harassment scandals on college campuses have come to light, including several in Illinois. Many students have said the allegations offer further evidence that campus policies against harassment are flawed.
In one recent case, law professor Jay Kesan, of the University of Illinois’ flagship campus, will take an unpaid year-long leave of absence after sexual harassment allegations from multiple students and faculty members – charges he initially denied but has since conceded are correct. News of those claims and a related campus-led investigation broke at a forum on #MeToo and academia hosted by the U of I law school in October.
Campus investigators determined Kesan’s actions, which included unwarranted references to sex, as well as unwanted touching and “ogling,” did not rise to the level of a violation of campus sexual misconduct policies. Because of that, campus officials have said they were unable to remove Kesan from teaching responsibilities or impose harsher sanctions.
Ashley Kennedy, president of the U of I Student Bar Association, said the situation with Kesan is indicative of a larger problem.
Sexual harassment perpetrated by professors “is actually, unfortunately, rather commonplace within universities across the country,” Kennedy said. “So we're really trying to push for a systemic change versus just piecemeal for individual cases.”
Kennedy calls the proposed changes to Title IX guidance “ironic.”
“Because here … the college of law and university are trying to expand the definition of sexual harassment,” she said, referring to recent campus-wide efforts to change sexual misconduct policies to better protect students. “And then at the national level, they're trying to tighten it and have a higher scrutiny level.”
While Kesan will take an unpaid leave of absence for the coming year, U of I law students and others are still calling for his resignation. U of I President Tim Killeen has called for a systemwide task force to look at policies and prevention efforts.
Earlier this month, students at the University of Chicago met to discuss sexual misconduct on college campuses. That was partially in anticipation of the recent Title IX announcement, as discussions around it had long been circulating.
Malay Trivedi, U of C student body vice president, said those changes would make it harder for survivors to seek justice.
“By allowing universities to change how they deal with different cases, they’re creating different types of environments where students could be more predisposed to sexual misconduct,” said Trivedi.
Trivedi and other students have drafted an open letter to state officials asking that they uphold state guidelines, per the “Illinois Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act”–regardless of any federal changes that may come.
Mary Hansen and Christine Herman contributed to the reporting of this story.