Between trying to keep up with the tax bills and making some sense of the legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, wondering what’s next for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and adjudicating sexual assault on campus amid an intense national climate focused on violence against women, higher education administrators are largely “triaging” to address all of the above.
“I’m going to argue that September of 2017 was one of the most significant months for policymaking for this administration,” said Michael Zola, vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, during the Higher Education Government Relations Conference held last week in San Diego.
A year ago, higher ed leaders were asked what they would say to incoming President Donald Trump if they had one minute alone with him, Zola recalled. “Don’t mess with DACA” was the overwhelming answer — “but here we are a year later” and DACA still is a key concern, he said.
“Where we are right now is basically two bodies, two policy pushes,” said Zola. “You’ve got Democrats who are very interested in getting some type of status change on the books to get a permanent solution for DACA,” which includes a pathway to citizenship and in-state tuition, he said. On the other side, “there’s a whole bunch of other bills ... none of them offers a permanent solution.”
“The president himself has been very mercurial about this,” he said, adding, “at the end of the day, I think a lot of folks are very anxious to figure out how to deal with this population. There’s a lot of uncertainty … so this is something very important that needs to be addressed.”
There have been talks about attaching a DACA solution to the current budget 2018 proposal, but “that said, I can’t see Democrats shutting down government [to force a DACA solution in the budget bill]. That’d be a very [uncharacteristic] thing for them to do.”
Still, Zola believes “for any member in the House or Senate who can de-link the DACA conversation from a border wall, or anything else, and get that done before the end of this year, [that] would be a very good policy action.”
Tom Harnisch, AASCU’s director of state relations and policy analysis, said while Congress sorts out what its going to do, college administrators are in a precarious situation trying to reassure students.
“Administrators should be weary that offering sanctuary is a check that can’t be cashed,” said Harnisch, who spoke on the various state crackdowns on the idea of sanctuary on campus.
Tackling sexual assault through legislation
In addition to DACA, sexual assault is another issue wreaking havoc across, not just higher ed, but the entire country. TIME magazine recently named “the silence breakers” — those women and men who have come forward to report sexual assault in as the collective — its 2017 person of the year.
“With everything that’s happening in sexual violence, sexual assault, not just in higher ed, but in the whole society,” Zola said, “the reality is we’ve got to be vocal” about how this is being addressed on our campuses.
Campus leaders are still trying to sort through proposed federal changes to sexual assault adjudication policies, and the PROSPER Act, the House Republicans’ attempt at comprehensive reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, included provisions around Title IX standards of evidence and due process provisions, said Zola.
Specifically, he said, there are “three major asks” in the bill related to sexual assault. The requirements to codify changes in standards of proof, which move away from the idea of requiring a preponderance of evidence to move forward with an investigation, and requirements to codify the due process provisions have been at the center of victims rights advocates’ ire.
The bill would require schools provide written notice to anyone accused of sexual assault and allow that person two weeks to formally respond to accusations before a full investigation is launched.
“One of the other pushes that’s coming with this administration is more due process, more equity and more fairness in the process around not just the complaints, but also the respondents,” Zola said.
The third provision in the PROSPER Act around sexual assault includes requirements for campus climate surveys and some language about the role of local law enforcement, Zola said.
Still, states are preparing for a showdown with the feds over the guidance, as many states have their own requirements for how campuses are to handle sexual assault.