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Scientists protest plan to weaken US gender-discrimination law

More than 89,000 public comments flood in on government proposal to rewrite Title IX, which prohibits sexual harassment in educational settings.

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Donald Trump seated next to Betsy DeVos at a meeting.

US education secretary Betsy DeVos, shown here with President Donald Trump, has proposed major changes to a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in education.Credit: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty

Update: the comment period on the proposed changes has ended and nearly 103,000 comments have been filed by members of the public.

A controversial US government proposal to change the law that prohibits gender discrimination in education has drawn more than 89,000 public comments, including many from scientists. At issue is the future of Title IX, the 1972 statute that is the primary legal weapon for battling sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct in US academia.

Many commenters argue that changes proposed by the Department of Education proposed in November would reduce protections for students. The 60-day public-comment period on the government's plan ends at 11:59 p.m. US Eastern time on 30 January.

“We cannot afford to weaken Title IX regulations if we care about those who experience sexual harassment and sexual violence,” wrote Celia Ford, a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, in a comment at regulations.gov.

“We are keenly aware of the continuing prevalence of sexual harassment in the mathematical sciences,” wrote Ami Radunskaya, a mathematician at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and president of the Association for Women in Mathematics. The proposed changes, she added, “will only make the situation worse”.

Redefining harassment

The education department's proposal would redefine sexual harassment from “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” to “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the [institution’s] education program or activity”. It would also require accusers to appear at a live hearing and be subject to cross-examination by a representative of the person they are accusing.

Betsy DeVos, the US education secretary, has said that the changes would support the accused as well as their accusers, and would reduce the burden on universities to investigate sexual-misconduct claims.

Student associations and other higher-education groups have been urging their members to weigh in on the plan before the comment period ends. Ford heard about it through the University of California’s student-worker union. The changes would “open up a giant rabbit hole of bad ways that [Title IX] can be interpreted by universities”, she says.

Ford worries that a university might decide that a faculty member acting inappropriately to junior colleagues at a work function does not constitute “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” behaviour. She also worries that the changes will disproportionately harm groups who are already marginalized at many institutions, such as people of colour or members of sexual and gender minorities (LGBT+). “I just think that’s going to further discourage people who think they won’t be taken seriously anyway,” Ford says.

Radunskaya agrees. “Many of the proposed changes would discourage people from making reports and would make institutions less accountable,” she says. “We have to go the other way — to make our environment consciously more welcoming, not less so.”

Pervasive problem

A study released last June by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine showed that sexual harassment is pervasive throughout academia and that it damages research integrity. “I know many students and trainees who have left a department, major or field of study due to harassment,” wrote Carol Ward, a biological anthropologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, in a comment on the Title IX proposal. “I recognize the difficulties in harassment situations, but ignoring or discouraging reporting and shaming victims is perpetuating the problem, not solving it.”

Ward also noted that the changes would include requiring an institution to respond only when the harassment or assault occurs within its own “education program or activity”. Many have questioned whether this would exclude incidents that occur off-campus. “Members of the community must be held accountable for their actions, regardless of where they occur, when they affect other members of our community,” Ward wrote.

DeVos and the Department of Education are not required to change the proposed rules on the basis of the public comments they receive.

“I firmly believe this will have a chilling effect on reporting and will also cause a lot of confusion,” says Jill Dunlap, director of research and practice at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators in Washington DC. “We’re undoing many years of good work in terms of trying to get students to trust in the process.”

Nature 566, 20 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00276-w
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