Updated: Sept. 14, 2017 at 10:45 a.m.
A group of alumni is demanding officials speak out against planned changes to federal Title IX guidelines designed to give more rights to the accused.
The formal letter, was sent Tuesday afternoon in response to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ statement last week that Obama-era Title IX policies had failed and were skewed against the accused in the sexual assault case process. It attracted 321 alumni signatures.
Leaders of the effort said officials needed to actively oppose the planned changes and commit to continue following guidance from the Obama administration, urging a crackdown on campus sexual assault.
The letter is addressed to University President Thomas LeBlanc, while Vice Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski and Provost Forrest Maltzman are copied on the document.
“We strongly urge you to publicly state your support for and continued commitment to the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter guidelines,” alumni wrote in the letter. “We ask that you ensure all Colonials have access to an education free from discrimination and violence.”
Alumna Maya Weinstein, who graduated in 2016, said she hopes the letter pushes the University to make a public statement supporting survivors after DeVos’ speech drew backlash from survivors and advocates.
“Now is not a time to be silent,” Weinstein said. “I think people are sometimes afraid to attach their names to things, but if you know what’s right and have a belief then it’s important that you stand by that.”
Officials would not comment directly on the University’s reaction to DeVos’ planned changes in a statement to The Hatchet last week, but said they would closely monitor the process – especially as GW’s Title IX policies undergo an external review.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said administrators have received the letter and are examining its contents.
“We are currently reviewing the letter and will be responding to the alumni soon,” Csellar said in an email. “Please know that we take issues of sexual misconduct and sexual violence very seriously and are committed to the safety of all our students.”
Weinstein said that DeVos’ speech left survivors in the dark about the fate of Title IX on college campuses nationwide.
“It clearly created a lot of confusion and a lot of uncertainty for the future of Title IX and and how universities would handle cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” she said.
Weinstein said she started drafting the letter in the afternoon right after DeVos’ speech, and reached out to the Students Against Sexual Assault alumni network for feedback. She said she also reached out to the Alumni Association, but did not receive a response.
“It felt like the natural next step was to have colleges and universities commit to upholding the Title IX guidelines even if the Department of Education chooses not to enforce them,” Weinstein said.
The form to sign the letter closed Monday at midnight, but Weinstein said the group will continue to collect signatures and reissue an updated letter if necessary, making it a “continuous piece” until a response from the University is released.
“We’re not saying that the administration is doing the wrong thing,” Weinstein said. “We’re saying that they haven’t done the right thing yet.”
Alumna Jocelyn Jacoby, a former co-president of SASA who graduated last spring and signed the letter, said DeVos’ speech only furthered a narrative perpetuated by the Trump administration that survivors are not a priority.
“Our current president admitted to assaulting people, that’s always in the background,” Jacoby said. “Survivors don’t forget that and I think that this is just another blow to that community, and feeling really abandoned by the current administration.”
Jacoby said the University’s stance downplays past efforts made by survivor-advocacy groups to support those coping with the emotional grief of sexual assault. She said the DOE’s policy change felt like a betrayal of the progress activists were trying to make.
“We’ve been working on this for so long and honestly we’ve been trying to get universities to follow Title IX as it is,” Jacoby said.
Aniqa Raihan, a 2017 alumna and survivor of sexual assault who signed the letter, petitioned to expel her assailant after he was given a lesser sanction than the recommended punishment in the code of conduct.
“This administration has proven itself to not be an ally right at the beginning and never has been,” she said about GW. “It’s always been student activists and survivors who push the ball forward on this issue and it always will be.”
Raihan said that with persistent pressure, she hopes the University will oppose DeVos as she moves to change federal guidance to universities.
“I hope that they know that that’s kind of their only option,” she said. “This isn’t going away and if they do chose to fight back, which I think would be stupid honestly on their part, but if they do chose to fight back, we’re ready for that fight.”
This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Weinstein reached out to the Office of Alumni Relations. She reached out to the Alumni Association. It is now correct. We regret this error.