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Title IX and the Critique of the Neoliberal University

4.5.16

Illustration by Harvard Magazine/JC


Illustration by Harvard Magazine/JC

The debate around sexual-assault policy, at Harvard and elsewhere, has put victims and their advocates at odds with conservatives, who imagine a more limited role for universities in the private lives of students, and worry, during a moment of national outrage at college sexual violence, that colleges’ adjudication processes trample on the rights of the accused. A group of Harvard Law School (HLS) professors made this argument in 2014, after the University released new sexual-assault policies that, they wrote, suspended due process for the accused and went beyond the requirements of Title IX, the federal law that protects students from sex discrimination.

A dense new report by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on university Title IX policies makes essentially the same argument. “Questions of free speech and academic freedom have been ignored in recent positions taken by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Education (DOE), which is charged with implementing the law, and by university administrators who are expected to oversee compliance measures,” the report asserts. “[T]he current focus of Title IX on sexual violations has also been accompanied by regulation that conflates sexual misconduct (including sexual assault) with sexual harassment based on speech. This has resulted in violations of academic freedom through the punishment of protected speech by faculty in their teaching, research, and extra-mural speech.” The AAUP calls on OCR and universities to amend their Title IX policies to protect academic freedom and due process explicitly, and to distinguish sexual harassment from legally protected speech that students may find offensive.

The AAUP touches on a broader theme on the edges of contemporary discourse about higher education: the idea of the neoliberal university, which links the ideology of neoliberalism—free markets, privatization, competition—to the policies of modern universities. “[T]he merits of Title IX as a principal instrument in the fight to end sex discrimination on campus must be evaluated in light of the increasing ‘corporatization of the university,’” the report continues. The shift “promotes a commercial model of universities, in which student satisfaction as ‘education consumers’ is paramount.” Such a model encourages university administrators to set policies unilaterally in response to market forces, undermining the faculty’s role in shared governance. Universities’ sexual-assault policies, in this model, are driven by the demands of education consumers (in this case, student activists) rather than by their efficacy in reducing sexual assault or attention to justice. The threat of losing federal funding for noncompliance with Title IX, too, factors into this calculus.  

In fact, the report argues, the efficacy of administrative responses like those embraced by Harvard is unproven. Citing the example of Harvard’s “single-purpose” Title IX office, it argues that universities’ responses to sexual assault prioritize complying with the letter of Title IX law and minimizing liability, rather than challenging the climate that contributes to sexual assault in a meaningful way. Royall professor of law Janet Halley, a feminist legal scholar who has been sharply critical of Harvard’s sexual-assault procedures, said universities’ systems of mandatory reporting, which require administrators and staff to report incidents of sexual harassment that are shared with them by students, undermine the interests of victims. “The appointment of us all as mandatory reporters is about liability,” she said. “They’re trying to routinize their exposure to liability, and that’s at the expense of the autonomy of victims—showing who’s in charge and whose interests are being served.” (HLS faculty voted to break from Harvard’s central sexual assault policy last year.)

This critique of the neoliberal university puts the AAUP in strange company: with both social conservatives who oppose what they view as illiberal sexual-assault policies, and social-justice activists who invoke critiques of corporatization as they advocate those very policies. The neoliberal university model can also be used to suggest, for example, that universities are not interested in disciplining sexual assailants—because doing so would increase reported sexual-assault incidents, damaging an institution’s market cachet.

The same analysis has been applied to demands, primarily from student activists, that universities change what’s taught in history, literature, and philosophy curricula to reflect the diversity of their students. Such calls have gained currency particularly during the current academic year: Yale announced a new center for the study of race and ethnicity, for example, following demands from protesters—drawing criticism that such programs are motivated by consumer demand rather than academic merit. Activists at HLS last semester began advocating for a program in critical race theory (a demand that so far has not been answered).

Interpreting the neoliberal critique depends on how one might conceive of the role of faculty in governing their universities—and more broadly on how much influence the public should have over policies of universities, public and private. Challenging administrative control and the influence of market forces undoubtedly is in the interest of the AAUP, a strong advocate of faculty governance. But colleges increasingly serve a larger and more diverse share of Americans—one that still doesn’t resemble university professors, and whose needs may not always align with those of faculty. An obvious response to the narrative critiquing the corporatizing university might then suggest that it’s invoked to protect the interests of the faculty over those of students and other university affiliates.

All this has made the question of student influence over their universities, and the proper role of the faculty, an open debate. In their recent book Locus of Authority, Princeton president emeritus William Bowen and Hamilton College president emeritus Eugene Tobin argue that the model of faculty governance isn’t suited to dealing with the challenges—legal, technological, economic—that universities face today. “We must ask,” they write, “whether it is reasonable to expect a century-old structure of faculty governance to enable colleges and universities of all kinds to respond to new demands for more cost-effective student learning.”

Choosing her words carefully, Halley agreed that the influence of market forces on universities’ priorities has been worrying. “The AAUP report rightly notices the trend toward seeing students as consumers of educational services,” she said. “Title IX is just one example, where colleges and universities all over the country have very expensive bureaucracies to handle these cases in an isolated, bureaucratic way, cut off from every other value of the institution—cut off from academic freedom and freedom of speech concerns.”

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