Georgetown University plans to maintain current Title IX processes as much as possible despite new Department of Education regulations set to go into effect next month, university officials said during a webinar Monday.
The Department of Education published an overhaul of Title IX rules May 6, angering many administrators and students who fear the changes will make it harder to report incidents of sexual misconduct. The new regulations, which are set to go into effect Aug. 14, tighten definitions of sexual misconduct and limit the scope of misconduct claims schools must investigate. The regulations also introduce a slate of procedures to “ensure a fair and transparent process” for the accused.
“Our approach has been basically to change as little as possible and to maintain, to the extent that we can, the processes that we have in place as we address all misconduct and all sexual misconduct that we were previously able to address. We will still address that,” Assistant Director of the Office of Student Conduct Heather Kimball said during the webinar.
Signed into law in 1972, Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in academic institutions or programs receiving federal funding and outlines procedures to investigate sexual misconduct on campuses. After the new Title IX regulations were first proposed by the Department of Education in 2018, Georgetown hosted several feedback sessions and town halls before submitting an 11-page letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in January 2019. The letter expressed the university’s concerns that the proposed changes would not foster a fair and just process for students filing Title IX complaints.
Although the university is legally obligated to implement the new regulations by Aug. 14, it plans to make only the necessary changes to existing policy, according to Title IX Coordinator Samantha Berner.
“We aim to limit changes primarily to those required by law and otherwise maintain our existing policies and procedures,” Berner said during the meeting. “Where the new regulations allow the university to exercise discretion and adopt policies and procedural changes — for example, mandatory reporting policies and their standard of evidence to be used — Georgetown will seek long-term broad input from the community after the August 14 date and will not make any changes at this time.”
The new regulations narrow the Obama administration’s definition of sexual assault, which included verbal abuse such as sexual jokes, comments or rumors, as well as sexual violence and other inappropriate conduct. Sexual assault under the new set of definitions includes quid pro quo harassment — in which benefits are granted by a person in power in exchange for sexual favors — sexual assault and other forms of violence as defined by the Clery Act, and “unwelcome conduct” that is “so serious, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access.”
Despite the changes to the definitions, the university has established a category for other offenses in attempt to ensure all offenses currently covered by the university’s sexual misconduct policy will remain covered under the new regulations, according to Berner.
The new rules also introduce procedural changes to university sexual assault and harassment investigations, limiting the liability of universities and increasing the number of steps survivors must complete to file a formal report. The regulations require mandatory live hearings and cross-examinations of both parties and limit Title IX investigations to incidents that occur on campus, though off-campus incidents can still be processed through alternative methods.
Additionally, universities are no longer required to make professors or coaches mandatory reporters of sexual misconduct. The new rules also allow universities to require a higher standard of evidence against the accused party.
Georgetown intends to maintain its current policies on both mandatory reporting and burden of proof, according to Berner.
“In terms of mandatory reporting, the new regulations limit who’s considered a responsible employee or mandatory reporter, and as such, Georgetown has the flexibility to revisit its policy requiring that faculty and staff serve as mandatory reporters who must report disclosures of sexual harassment and misconduct,” Berner said.
As a religious institution, Georgetown qualifies for an exemption from Title IX due to faith-based objections. The new regulations allow religious institutions to be automatically exempt from some Title IX rules without having to submit a formal written request. Georgetown has historically refrained from using this exemption and will maintain this stance, according to Berner.
The Office of Student Conduct will continue to provide alternative intervention options for incidents that do not fall under the new Title IX definitions or in cases where the survivor does not feel comfortable filing a formal report. An agreement between both parties is required in this process.
Ultimately, however, the selected alternative depends on the needs of the survivor, according to Kimball.
“Generally, at the end of the restorative process — and that process can look a bunch of different ways — there’s some sort of agreement that specifies what the person who has caused harm has agreed to do in order to address the needs of the survivor and repair harm,” Kimball said.
Georgetown will attempt to retain focus on its previous priorities through the new Title IX framework, according to Director of the Office of Student Conduct Judy Johnson.
“We’re not stepping away from responsibilities. To the extent that we have to add more, we’re doing that, but we’re layering it within our current process. And so we’re not giving parties less access, but rather adding more where the new regulations say that we need to,” Johnson said during the meeting. “We’re maintaining our commitment to the university, to our community, to support the parties within this process, to support and reflect the values of the university community.”