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Editorial board members Nolan Finley and Ingrid Jacques discuss the retirement announcement of U.S. Rep Dave Trott, a farmer at odds with a Lansing city market over his views on gay marriage, changes to college sex assault guidelines

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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos today sent a strong signal that she will revise Obama-era guidelines related to campus sexual assault.

In a much-anticipated speech at George Mason University this afternoon, DeVos laid out a vision for what the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights will look like under her leadership.

While she says universities are not going to be let “off the hook,” DeVos wants to return to a system that prioritizes due process rights for all students involved in accusations of assault.

“Due process is the foundation of any system of justice that seeks a fair outcome,” DeVos said, according to excerpts of the speech obtained by The Detroit News. “Due process either protects everyone, or it protects no one.

“The era of ‘rule by letter’ is over.”

DeVos stopped short of saying she’d rescind the Obama administration’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” memo, which put intense pressure on university administrators to undertake assault investigations, and dole out punishment as needed.

Yet it’s clear the Trump administration is moving in a different direction.

“Washington’s push to require schools to establish these quasi-legal structures to address sexual misconduct comes up short for far too many students,” DeVos said. “The current system hasn’t won widespread support, nor has it inspired confidence in its so-called judgments.”

Critics of the current policies are widespread, and include the American College of Trial Lawyers and American Association of University Professors. Harvard law professors have also spoken out in opposition.

The Obama administration used Title IX, designed to end sex discrimination at schools receiving federal dollars, as the rationale for this campus crackdown. It instructed colleges to use a weaker preponderance of evidence standard for determining guilt. And if schools didn’t comply, they faced scrutiny and the threat of withheld funding.

“Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach,” DeVos said. “With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today.”

DeVos discussed the problems with the current system and the need to establish a “regulatory framework that serves all students.”

She said she intends to “launch a notice-and-comment process to incorporate the insights of all parties in developing a better way.”

“We will seek public feedback and combine institutional knowledge, professional expertise and the experiences of students to replace the current approach with a workable, effective and fair system,” DeVos said.

By issuing a Dear Colleague letter, President Barack Obama’s OCR avoided that process.

In recent months, DeVos has listened to advocates on both sides of the issue.

“The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students,” DeVos said. “Survivors, victims of a lack of due process and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved.”

She’s received heated pushback from victim support groups, Democrats and celebrities about changing the policies.

But she is keeping the focus on a return to due process — an intrinsic constitutional right.

“A better way means that due process is not an abstract legal principle only discussed in lecture halls,” DeVos said. “The truth is we must do better.”

ijacques@detroitnews.com

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