This project investigates university responses to student sexual misconduct in a rapidly changing legal environment through the analysis of campus sexual misconduct policies, litigation against universities, media coverage, and interviews with key stakeholders. 


Sandra Levitsky and Elizabeth A. Armstrong launched this project in late 2014. Kamaria Porter joined the team in 2015 and has been involved in every aspect of the project since, joining Sandy and Elizabeth on the leadership team. Many talented University of Michigan graduate and undergraduate student researchers have worked on the project, which has been supported by various units at the University of Michigan and by the National Science Foundation.

Context

While campus sexual assault is not a new problem, the attention that it has received in the last 10 years is unprecedented. The forces generating this attention are complex, but one thing is clear: The field changed in 2011 with a “Dear Colleague Letter” circulated by the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. This letter indicated that the Office for Civil Rights under the Obama Administration intended to hold schools accountable for complying with Title IX–the 1972 law prohibiting sex discrimination in education. It emphasized that sexual assault and sexual harassment constitute sex discrimination under Title IX, and offered guidance on what schools needed to do to be considered compliant. In response, colleges and universities across the country reformulated their policies and practices. In 2017, the DeVos Office for Civil Rights rescinded the Obama-era guidance, and after a Notice and Comment period, released new Title IX regulations in May 2020. This whiplash at the federal level has been accompanied by an acceleration of sexual misconduct related litigation against universities. In some cases this litigation has generated precedent-setting law at the circuit court level. State legislatures have jumped into the fray as well, legislating sexual misconduct policies, most notably around definitions of sexual consent. At every turn, the media has taken a keen interest, especially in covering cases of serious sexual misconduct. These events have occurred in the context of the ongoing #MeToo movement, and have spawned a backlash emphasizing false allegations and the rights of accused students. 

In sum: Universities are responding to sexual misconduct in an uncertain cultural, political, and legal environment.

Questions

An overarching aim of our project is to document these changes over time and to develop an analysis of how organizations — particularly colleges and universities — construct the law in this chaotic environment.  

As sociolegal scholars with interests in gender, sexuality, education, institutions, and movements, we are interested in: 

  • Documenting and explaining variation in how universities implemented Obama-era guidance; 
  • Developing the implications of the heterogeneity and hybridity of school policies for socio-legal theory;
  • Documenting and explaining the divergence between Obama-era school policies (which were generally not particularly victim-centered) and public discourse about what schools were doing (which suggested schools were disciplining students without due process).

Data

Addressing these questions requires multiple forms of data. We have investigated:

  • The state of the field in 2016, the end of the Obama administration, through analysis of sexual misconduct policies, annual security reports, and website information on resources and reporting of a sample of 381 American universities
  • The shifting cultural, political, and legal environment, through tracing the following over time:
    • Media coverage of campus sexual assault, with an emphasis on discourse on due proceess
    • Litigation targeted at schools in our sample
    • Key political and legal events
  • The perspectives of key stakeholders through in-depth interviews

As each of our questions is complex and data rich, the project has grown into an intersecting set of subprojects, which will each yield one or more papers.

Click on the links below to find out more about various parts of the project.

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