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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is baffled that so many adults in power at Michigan State University were neglectful in their roles and didn’t take on the concerns student athletes kept bringing to them regarding sports doctor Larry Nassar.

“I don’t know how you could not have addressed this much earlier on and saved a lot of young women from a lot of pain,” DeVos told me in an interview. 

The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday fined Michigan State University a record $4.5 million for its handling of the Nassar abuse scandal, and is requiring a range of corrective action to protect students. 

More: DeVos calls Michigan State's mishandling of Nassar 'abhorrent'

DeVos’ commitment to investigating what went so wrong at MSU — and enforcing changes at the university — should ease concerns regarding comprehensive changes she has proposed to guidelines governing campus sexual assault investigations. 

“In the case of Michigan State, and what we’ve seen with other similar instances at other colleges and universities, is the framework that was in place wasn’t much of a framework," DeVos says. “It wasn’t reliable.”

That is what she’s working to change. 

MSU will remain under the scrutiny of several Education Department branches, including Federal Student Aid, which oversees Clery Act crime reporting violations, and the Office for Civil Rights, which enforces Title IX, the law that seeks to prevent sex discrimination in education. 

On Thursday, MSU agreed to the department mandates, including the hiring of a Clery compliance officer — a new position. 

DeVos had promised over a year ago that her department would conduct two separate investigations. And she’s followed through.

“It was just really, really important to me that this department be able to come forward,” DeVos says. “I’m thankful for the work they did and where they’ve landed.” 

DeVos says she wants what happened at Michigan State to serve as an example for other universities and spur them to examine their policies and make sure they are following the law — and working in their students’ best interest. And she encourages universities to reach out to the department for help.

“If they have questions, we want to be a partner with them — not just a hammer that comes down after the fact,” she says. “The goal is to provide students a safe and nurturing environment to pursue their education, wherever that is.”

She also believes the MSU investigation, along with other ongoing intervention at Ohio State, the University of Southern California and Penn State, relate to the broader Title IX regulatory framework that she seeks to improve. 

More: Jacques: Don’t conflate Nassar scandal with Title IX reforms

More: Editorial: Title IX reforms will protect all students

“We are very deep into the final rule process on that,” DeVos says. “It’s important for every higher ed institution to take seriously their responsibility to students and to be careful about how they approach these things and what processes they put in place.”

Last fall, the Education Department formally released its revised Title IX guidelines and then put them before the public for a comment period. The department received more than 100,000 responses and has spent months reviewing and responding to the comments. DeVos also says the comments will be taken into consideration before finalizing the new rule. 

That is expected to happen this fall, which means the guidelines could take effect in time for the 2020-21 school year. 

DeVos has fought for these changes to the Title IX investigations from the beginning of her tenure, speaking out for a fair system that ensures due process for all students — accused and accuser — while still preserving a framework that protects victims. The courts have similarly come down on the side of due process in these university tribunals. 

Yet that hasn’t stopped DeVos’ many critics from saying she’s basically on the side of rapists and not sensitive to the concerns of survivors. That couldn’t be further from the truth, she says.

“The criticism that I’ve gotten around the Title IX process is, I think, very ill founded,” she says. “I take these matters very, very seriously, and I think the investigations and the results for the Michigan State situation bear that out. We have got to do right for students no matter where they’re in school, and schools have to do right by them — we need to put the framework in place to ensure they are serving their students. 

“This is a very important issue to me.”

ijacques@detroitnews.com 

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