By Published: Jan. 24, 2018

The #metoo movement highlights pervasive sexual harassment and assault that have, for far too long, been in the fabric of our society. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has moved to change the guidelines for universities investigating sexual harassment and sexual assault.

This is a good time to review what federal law says and what it means for those of us in the university community.


James W.C. White

Federal law—Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972—stipulates that no person shall be denied the benefits of education or be discriminated in education on the basis of sex. That law reflects a core American value: that women and men should enjoy equal opportunities in education (and in all areas).

Sadly, we know that women’s educational opportunities are often stunted and thwarted by sexual harassment and abuse, which violates Title IX. Appallingly, we know this is common. A 2015 survey by the Association of American Universities, for instance, found that 23 percent of women undergraduate students said they’d suffered sexual harassment or misconduct in college.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education rescinded guidelines for universities’ investigations of Title IX complaints. The rescinded guidelines—from 2011 and 2014—directed universities to apply a “preponderance of evidence” (or weight of evidence) standard to determine whether an instance of sexual harassment or assault occurred. This is the standard of proof the U.S. Supreme Court uses in similar court cases, such as those based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In its fall 2017 directive, the U.S. Department of Education allowed universities to adopt a higher standard of evidence, one relying on “clear and convincing” proof that sexual harassment or violence occurred.

It is important to emphasize what other University of Colorado officials have noted: The federal shift has not changed this university’s procedures. The University of Colorado continues to use the “preponderance of evidence” standard.

The shift has also not changed the university’s core values. The university remains firmly committed to building a more just campus environment.

So, I write to reiterate a message that can’t be repeated too often: Those who have suffered harassment or abuse—and those who witness it—should not be silent. They should not ignore it. They should not be dissuaded from reporting it to the university. And they should be assured that confidential resources are available, too.

Eradicating sexual harassment and violence will not be easy, and will require that we keep diligently discussing, reporting and confronting harassment and assault. Equal opportunity is part of our Buff DNA. Striving to end abuse is what we do and who we are.

James W.C. White is interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.