Monday, September 11, 2017

Betsy DeVos' Attack on Obama-Administration Regulations re: Sexual Harassment on Campuses: It's What Heterosexual Males Want

Trump's education secretary Betsy DeVos has ripped up Obama-administration regulations that sought to put teeth into the attempt of women in university settings to report sexual harassment and rape. She's actually defending rapists: that's the gist of her comments about her decision to ditch Obama-administration policies in this area. (See here, here, here, here, and here).

I can break this down a bit from my years in the academy. Over and over, working in church-based colleges and universities, I saw fierce resistance to empowering women — especially at Belmont Abbey College, the Catholic school in North Carolina run by Benedictine monks (a male Catholic religious community, it should be noted) at which Steve and I worked a few miserable years. As the culture outside the academy began slowly to accord women more rights, male faculty and staff members in several church-related schools in which I worked fought very hard to keep those cultural trends from manifesting themselves inside the academy.

At Belmont Abbey, women who asked that their colleagues use non-sexist, non-gender-tagged terms ("humanity," rather than "man"; third-person pronouns that coupled "he/she" or "his/hers," rather than subsuming everyone under the male pronoun) were heckled, slapped down, voted down, and reminded in faculty meetings that the school in which they worked was an old boys' network and was going to remain that way, by God.

I was at the school the day Clarence Thomas was confirmed for his Supreme Court bench and Anita Hill very decisively slapped in the face. The glee of those old boys in the faculty lounge was palpable, the lording it over female colleagues. It was sickening in the extreme.

One reason for the fierce resistance: along with increasing respect for women as persons and for women's rights comes also refusal to wink any longer at rape and sexual harassment — which is almost always a heterosexual male thing done to others regarded as "lesser," because it's about consolidating and demonstrating power. When I was in graduate school and was elected a student representative to the faculty of my theology school, and we student representatives were asked to do a survey of students for a forthcoming accreditation visit, a considerable number of students reported on the survey that there was a problem of sexual harassment in the school. Male faculty were sexually harassing female students.

Everyone knew this. Many of us had seen it going on with our own eyes at social gatherings. But because we dared to report what had been reported to us on a survey the faculty itself commissioned, we student representatives were harshly reprimanded, and in a faculty meeting in which only one female faculty member was present (there were only two on the whole theological faculty at the time, as well as I can recall), a vote was taken to have this information expunged from the accreditation report. The vote was unanimous except for that single, solitary female faculty member.

I was personally blamed for this debacle by several faculty members, including a married man on the faculty who became a Ukranian Catholic priest, who was one of the chief offenders in sexually harassing female students. He came to a student meeting as all this was being discussed and made a slur in front of all the students gathered at the meeting about my sexual orientation.

Regulations protecting women from sexual harassment in the academy are still spotty, and in many church-related institutions, they are nonexistent. These church institutions have bitterly resented that the Obama administration tried in timid ways to enforce non-discrimination rules pertaining to Title IX, both regarding sexual harassment of women in the academy and discrimination against LGBTQ people. Belmont Abbey College is one of the church-related schools that were discovered last year to have requested a "right to discriminate" exemption from the federal government — a right to discriminate against LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff while receiving Title IX funds that require schools not to discriminate.

Why is Betsy DeVos dismantling what the Obama administration did to give women a stronger tool to challenge sexual harassment in the academy? Because it's what heterosexual males, who continue to have exorbitant power in all institutions in our society, want. And, quite specifically, it's what "Christian" academic institutions want, more than secular ones — and they want to scream "religious freedom" as they turn a blind eye to sexual harassment of women on their campuses, and even rape of women, and they also want to practice overt discrimination against LGBTQ students.

Bethune-Cookman University administrators (Bethune-Cookman is a United Methodist institution) must be very proud of themselves for having invited Ms. DeVos to address their graduating seniors this past May.

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