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Penn professors and students discuss the future of sexual assault policies at Penn.

Credit: Carson Kahoe

For college students across the United States, the sexual misconduct policies introduced by President Obama are now in jeopardy.

But at Penn, where sexual assault has long been the focus of both student activism and administrative attention, potential rollback of federal guidelines on sexual misconduct is unlikely to have any serious impact.

Obama dramatically changed the conversation surrounding sexual assault with the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, which outlined stricter guidelines on investigating and adjudicating sexual misconduct cases.

According to the letter, Title IX — which prohibits discrimination based on gender in any federally funded educational institution — requires schools “to take immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence.”

Penn adopted the necessary changes according to the Title IX guidelines and introduced several new policies, including the creation of a sexual violence investigative office on campus.

One aspect of the new Title IX guidelines — the adjudication of cases using a “preponderance of evidence,” which only stipulates that the crime probably occurred and is used in civil cases, not criminal cases — was not without controversy. Sixteen Penn Law School professors wrote an open letter denouncing that change as not adequately protective of the rights of the accused.

President Trump, who faced criticism after the leak of an Access Hollywood tape in which he bragged about sexual assault, has not revealed any plans to change or create policy surrounding sexual assault on college campuses.

When asked whether she could commit to upholding Obama’s guidelines, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, said, “It would be premature for me to do that today.”

But the 2016 GOP platform called for sexual assault cases to be handled by law enforcement officers, not university officials, and it’s possible that with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, federal attitudes towards the adjudication of sexual misconduct will change.

Ross Aikins, a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, doesn’t anticipate that Penn will alter its policies even if the Obama-era guidelines are rolled back and schools are allowed to individually determine how they handle the issue.

“There’s very little incentive for universities and colleges to do things that result in a less safe campus,” he said. “And I think that in terms of pledging resources towards protecting students and engendering student health, once you make a commitment and pledge these resources ... it’s very hard to take that away.”

Ron Ozio, a Penn spokesperson, said Penn Title IX coordinator Sam Starks was unavailable for an interview and wrote in an email that Penn “could not comment on something that hasn’t even happened.” But Deb Harley, Penn’s sexual violence investigative officer, maintained that Penn will continue to take its responsibility to handle sexual misconduct seriously.

“Penn created this department and its office because of its longstanding commitment to diversity and respecting everyone’s rights,” she said. “The commitment on Penn’s behalf is ongoing.”

Faculty Senate Chair Laura Perna echoed that sentiment. She said the administration would be “watching to see how the regulations change and trying to understand the implications of that for our community,” but also said she is “very certain that there will be continued commitment among the admin and among the faculty to ensuring that we have appropriate attention to issues of sexual assault.”

For student activists who fight against sexual violence on campus, it’s been a busy year. The release of lewd emails targeting freshman girls from the off-campus organization OZ in September shone a spotlight on issues surrounding rape culture, and President Trump’s victory prompted additional attention towards safety for women.

College senior and Finance Chair of Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention Gabriella Ficerai-Garland said she has faith that Penn will continue to address sexual misconduct as seriously as it always has, regardless of what happens on the federal level.

But if the Trump administration does not pay the same kind of attention to sexual violence as the Obama administration did, her job will be even more important.

“I’m not hopeful that the federal government will be looking into issues of sexual assault really at all over the next four years,” she said. “The biggest thing we can do is hold our schools individually accountable.”