WASHINGTON, November 30, 2012—Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, reportedly announced yesterday in a conference call that she would be stepping down from the post as of today. Under her tenure, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has failed for more than a year and a half to answer letters from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) about OCR’s controversial 2011 mandate that colleges receiving federal funding sharply reduce crucial due process protections for students accused of sexual harassment or misconduct.
"While we wish Ms. Ali the best, we hope her successor will end OCR’s silence regarding widespread concerns about the fundamental due process rights of students and faculty members," said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley.
According to OCR’s April 4, 2011, "Dear Colleague" letter, authored by Ali, colleges and universities must employ the "preponderance of the evidence" standard—a 50.01%, "more likely than not" evidentiary burden that is our judiciary’s lowest—when adjudicating student complaints concerning sexual harassment or misconduct. The letter further required that if a university judicial process allows the accused student to appeal a verdict, it must allow the accusing student the right to appeal as well, resulting in a form of "double jeopardy" for the accused. Additionally, OCR’s letter failed to make a clear distinction between truly harassing conduct and speech protected by the First Amendment.
FIRE wrote twice to Ali, the second time accompanied by allies from across the political spectrum, detailing profound concerns about the mandates. FIRE has not received a response to either letter. The AAUP wrote twice with similar concerns, but also appears to have been ignored.
FIRE is hopeful that the Department of Education’s next assistant secretary for civil rights will demonstrate a renewed concern for student and faculty rights on campus.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Robert Shibley, Senior Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org