June 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

Column: Regret isn't the same as rape

The Obama administration and its ardent supporters would never let the facts get in the way of a politically expedient cause.

This year President Barack Obama is targeting campus rape and sexual assaults, which the administration painted as an alarming crisis in a January report. That study stated one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, and only 12 percent of assaults are reported.

Yet when veteran conservative columnist George Will wrote a perfectly reasonable piece questioning those numbers, shock and outrage followed.

How dare Will challenge a politically correct assumption? Critics prefer to ignore professional number crunchers like University of Michigan-Flint economist Mark Perry, who have shown those sexual assault statistics are vastly overstated.

Still, some newspapers that printed the syndicated column have apologized. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch stopped running Will columns. The Detroit News, which continues to feature Will, has received angry calls.

While making a broader point about federal interference in higher education, Will expressed concern that White House pressure on colleges will push them to distort the reality of campus sexual encounters. If a college doesn’t come to the conclusion the administration seeks when dealing with a rape accusation, it risks losing its federal funding.

The federal Civil Rights office is investigating more than 50 schools, including Michigan and Michigan State, “for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.” In a recent interview with NPR, Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, expressed concern that as colleges create stricter standards, they do so with disregard for due process for the accused.

“To allow bureaucrats on our college campuses arbitrarily to determine what is consent and what is not, when even the law has difficulty, certainly underscores the absurdity of this system,” Neal said.

Will related an anecdote from Swarthmore College, where a student spent the night in her room with a guy she’d “been hooking up with” for months. Given they were both sleeping in her bed, it’s not shocking they had sex, even though she says she told him “no.” Six weeks later, she reported she’d been raped. A prosecutor could never make a case out of such ambiguous evidence. But colleges aren’t held to the same evidence standard, leaving accused men with little protection.

It’s hard to imagine a more horrific crime than rape. But blurring regret and rape diminishes the trauma of women who are assaulted.

Even on colleges campuses, the accused has constitutional rights, including a presumption of innocence. The new standard, though, is that an accusation is tantamount to guilt. As a former college professor, I’ve seen the results of mixing alcohol and hormones, and agree campus officials should encourage responsible decision-making by all students. But it is unfair to place the entire burden on college men.

It’s a scary prospect when the change of a young woman’s mind can alter the course of a young man’s life.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.