Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

This month at Princeton University, hundreds of student protesters participated in a campaign to change how their institution handles cases of sexual misconduct, using a days-long sit-in to wrangle future meetings with administrators. At their invitation, I studied their 11 proposed reforms.

“We ask that the University engage in dialogue regarding the systemic issues of sexual and interpersonal violence on its campus,” they write. “We need a conversation.”

Their suggestions merit one. Constructive throughout, they combine reform proposals that could attract support from people on all sides of the Title IX debate with ideas that will divide observers depending on their views about due process. And they illustrate an underappreciated tension in the approach of today’s student activists, who simultaneously express outrage at the bad behavior of administrative bureaucracies and fight to expand their size and power.


In a reported Washington Post dispatch with a Princeton dateline, Paula Span once observed that “someone who has not spent much time on a campus lately may be startled to see the way the definition of a liberal college has changed. A generation ago, it was a school withdrawing from its students’ sexual lives, dismantling curfews and rules about who could be in whose dorm when. Now it’s a school that, often at students’ insistence, is firmly stepping back in.”

Those words were published on October 22, 1993.

As her article went on to note, the subject of sexual assault was “virtually part of the curriculum at U.S. colleges.” At Princeton, orientation included a student-performed play about date rape. The institution had just “adopted a sexual assault policy establishing disciplinary proceedings and services for victims.” Counselors were available 24 hours a day. And then the 25-year-old Princeton graduate student Katie Roiphe had recently published The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism.

Roiphe argued that an alleged “rape crisis” on American campuses was exaggerated and that feminists were producing “endless images of women as victims,” a “portrait of the delicate female” that resembled “that ’50s ideal my mother and other women of her generation fought so hard to leave behind.” Controversy surrounding her thesis ensured that Princeton was a national lightning rod in that era’s mainstream debate about sexual assault on campus.

Analysis of that era’s protests, debates, and administrative interventions might inform a question that ought to loom large in the controversies of spring 2019: Does hiring new administrators really help reduce sexual assault on campus? But memories are short at institutions that students pass through in four years.

Today’s Princeton students frame their protest as a response to a five-year-old controversy about Title IX, a law that prohibits colleges that receive federal funds from excluding, discriminating against, or denying benefits on the basis of sex. “In 2014, the Department of Education found that Princeton was not in compliance with this federal law,” the activists note. At the time, Barack Obama’s administration had adopted a new interpretation of the statute, pressuring many institutions to change how they handled claims of sexual misconduct.

“Five years later, Princeton’s Title IX system remains broken,” the manifesto asserts.

To underscore Princeton’s problems as they see them, they activists have compiled “34 stories of survivors” at the college who have been affected by what they call “the negligence of Princeton’s Title IX processes.” The system is “plagued by a lack of transparency regarding the Title IX process,” they write. Administrators “have not communicated effectively or compassionately with survivors … Outdated precedents jeopardize the fairness of the adjudication process … And Title IX panels have not adequately collected and aggregated evidence.” They seem to believe that efforts on behalf of survivors of sexual assault and against the crime itself are best focused on improving that bureaucratic system.

The first three of the student activists’ 11 reform ideas are promising:

  1. Transparency and consistency in Title IX processes.

  2. An external review of the implementation of Title IX at Princeton, along with a parallel and incorporated committee for student oversight.

  3. The establishment of an opt-in restorative justice track for survivors who wish to avoid the process of Title IX proceedings.

Those on the other side of the issue, who insist that Obama-era Title IX guidelines deprive accused students of due process, agree that the system is plagued by lack of transparency, ineffective communication, outdated precedents, and failures to adequately collect and handle evidence. When the student activists say, “We need a document that educates all Princeton community members on Title IX and how it is implemented at Princeton at every step,” they’re urging a reform everyone could accept.

The call for an external audit might also attract broad support, but raises the question of who decides on the auditors, given that what counts as compliance is so contested. When I put that question to the activists, they clarified that an outsider perspective would be helpful on a range of straightforward process issues.

“Some elements of good conduct are consistent no matter who performs the review,” they wrote. “For example, does every complainant hear back about the result of their case in a timely matter, if at all? Does every complainant and respondent know what is grounds for appeal or how to register grievances?” But they listed some other questions that struck me as requiring judgments on inevitably controversial matters. “Are staff handling cases in a sensitive manner that doesn’t unnecessarily traumatize survivors?” they wrote. “Are the staff assigned to potentially guide students through the process adequately trained?”

Arguably most intriguing is their call to give students the option to seek “restorative justice” instead of filing a complaint through the Title IX bureaucracy.

They write:

At least 65 colleges and universities—including Brown University and Stanford University—have implemented some form of restorative justice programming. PRISM at Skidmore University offers opt-in restorative justice conferences, support circles, and administrative hearings for all members of the University community. A full administrative staff is dedicated to the implementation … We call for restorative interventions that establish appropriate standards of sexual conduct, reduce fear, and preserve the agency of survivors. Full-time, professional practitioners of restorative justice—trained specifically in matters of interpersonal violence—will help all parties involved develop mutual action plans, choose how, if at all, to participate in moderated dialogue, and empower rather than retraumatize survivors.

I’m in favor of more experiments in restorative justice. But keep those full-time restorative-justice administrators in mind as you read the next three suggested reforms:

  1. The creation of a fully-staffed Office of Intersectional Violence Investigation, which can address compounded violations (including but not limited to racist, (cis)sexist, homophobic, ableist, and transphobic violence) under an intersectional framework.
  2. The hiring of full-time, professional social workers independent of the Title IX office, SHARE, and Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) to help survivors considering navigating the Title IX system and to function as survivors’ first point of contact and their consistent advocates.
  3. The establishment of a fund to assist students with costs related to mental health services.

The student activists want Princeton to hire a whole lot more people: the outside auditing firm, the full-time staff of restorative-justice experts, whatever constitutes a “fully-staffed” office of “intersectional violence investigation,” plus a new independent office of professional social workers. In item nine, they call for “an International Interpersonal Coordinator to be immediately hired to work as a direct resource on issues of sexual misconduct and interpersonal violence for Princeton students while they are abroad.” And in item 10, they advocate hiring more professional counselors to add diversity to their ranks, and paying students who currently volunteer their labor to help victims of assault.

On top of a pricey existing bureaucracy, that’s a lot of new expenses, I pointed out.

If all your demands were met, I asked the activists, would that be a good use of money? Ten new administrators might address any number of campus needs. What’s the case that meeting these needs is most important?

I’m not sure they granted the premise of the question. As they put it:

A better question might be that, at an institution with so many resources at its disposal, why hasn’t there already been a serious effort to address the recurring and disproportionate impact on women, people of color, LGBTQ+ students, and those who live at these intersections? We should ask why the
university wishes to expand its student body when it cannot properly support its current one.

Surely if there is time to solicit the capital to build a new building, a $65 million undertaking, there is time to find the capital to prevent interpersonal violence. This, of course, ignores the $25.9 billion endowment that can be mobilized to intervene in this crisis if the university recognized the urgency. We have the access to the money to address the campus injustices and the status of marginalized students. As the university aims to admit more students from marginalized backgrounds, Princeton must do everything in its power to ensure these students can live and learn in a safe environment without enduring cumulative and compounding violence because of their identities.

Let me push back. Princeton could spend down its endowment or raise tuition or hit up donors to fund a new Office of Suicide Prevention, an Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling Center, state-of-the-art accommodations for special-needs students, a new cancer-research initiative, an unprecedented effort to reduce the campus’s carbon footprint … or any number of other good things.

That does not mean there’s no case for spending money on a dramatic expansion of the Title IX administrative bureaucracy, but a case is, in fact, required––one that grapples with opportunity costs, instead of just asserting that the status quo is flawed.

In our correspondence, I asked about a hypothetical in which the activists’ suggested reforms turned out to cost $20 million a year. Could they justify that price tag? The activists were undaunted.

For context, “during the 2017-2018 academic year,” Princeton notes of its Title IX proceedings, “there were 17 cases in which respondents were found responsible for sexual misconduct, and 16 cases in which respondents were found not responsible.” The $20 million–a-year figure would be sufficient to give all confirmed victims of sexual assault $1 million each in cash. And I’ve seen no conclusive evidence that increasing the size of Title IX bureaucracies reduces the incidence of sexual assault on campus or meaningfully diminishes the pain or trauma of victims.

I was especially struck by the activists’ question about why Princeton would want to expand when it “cannot properly support” its current student body, which is better supported than almost everyone else in planet Earth’s history. Even narrowly focusing on the issue of sexual violence against students, Princeton offers far more dedicated support to victims than is available to anyone in New Jersey who doesn’t live on the campus of a selective college. And off-campus sexual-assault rates among 18-to-22-year-olds are higher.

On those grounds alone, one could argue that spending, say, $20 million to expand the Princeton student body advances social justice more than spending on current students, a case that grows stronger in light of the full range of advantages enjoyed by those who attend an Ivy League school.

In some moments, student activism is focused on causes, such as the Freedom Rides or the anti–Vietnam War protests or the Occupy Wall Street movement, that aim to effect broad social change intended to improve life for many people far from any campus. Today student activists could demand that their wealthy institutions underwrite a battered women’s shelter, or partner with a nearby municipality to provide universal mental-health counseling for all victims of sexual assault in the community.

Of course, the activists have every right to focus more narrowly on their privileged classmates. They wish to improve the community where they live, and they’re doing more to try to improve the world, not less, than many of their peers. Still, money spent on administrative bloat is money not spent elsewhere. Whereas calls to better use existing resources are always worth studying, there must be some limit to the additional millions that one can spend on behalf of Ivy League students while still claiming to advance social justice. What is that limit?

Reform No. 7 struck me as questionable, too, but for a different reason. The student activists call for the program in gender and sexuality studies to become a new academic department, arguing that it would prove “a key step in challenging dominant paradigms of toxic masculinity, homophobia and transphobia.”

In response, I emailed, “You seem to be rooting a scholarly field in an outcome-oriented effort to advance social justice, rather than a viewpoint-neutral effort to seek truth by facilitating scholarly inquiry wherever it leads. Isn’t that a politicization of the faculty that implicitly constrains the academic freedom of those working in the proposed department?” For example, what if a scholar came to believe, “through her research, that toxic masculinity is a flawed concept?” I asked. Would that scholar’s earnest belief “or the department’s mission of ‘challenging dominant paradigms of toxic masculinity’ take precedence?”

They replied:

There is no such thing as neutral scholarly inquiry since it must be understood through the perspective of the author. A gender and sexuality studies department would examine research keeping in mind the social forces that impact gender and sexuality. To acknowledge that gender and sexuality impacts the way we move through the world is not a political statement. The paradigms we discuss are well accepted terms in the field that decades of research say play a causal role in violence. The departmentalization of Gender and Sexuality Studies will help generate research on gender and sexual violence on campus and provide intellectual frameworks to help combat those forms of violence.

But there is such a thing as an academic department that is viewpoint-neutral, affording scholars the freedom to reach a variety of conclusions that are not preordained. And I did not contest the uncontroversial statement, “Gender and sexuality impacts the way we move through the world” (something they seemed to cast as a neutral foundation for scholarly inquiry moments after asserting that there is no such thing); I asked about dissenting views on toxic masculinity.

I was as skeptical of their final demand: “We call for the University to publicly maintain its commitment to protecting survivors’ rights as outlined in current Title IX policies, in spite of proposed national rollback efforts.” In part, I was skeptical because I believe that the Obama administration’s approach to Title IX violates the due-process rights of accused students––and judges have agreed, on occasion siding with accused students in their lawsuits against universities. In 2019 so far, at least two accused students have sued Princeton alleging that their due-process rights were violated, according to the academic K. C. Johnson. In one case that settled, “Princeton aggressively fought in court to avoid implementing cross-examination,” he wrote, “or a requirement to have to turn over their training materials.”


Sexual assault is a serious problem on and off campus. In the past, I’ve argued that its incidence warrants both cultural change and experiments in innovative attempts to guard against serial predators. Today I hope student activists succeed in increasing transparency, remedying whatever failures are exposed, and experimenting with restorative justice. But 25 years after the first round of efforts to address the problem through administrators and campus-life initiatives, I don’t understand the activist faith that Title IX and associated bureaucracies can be the cornerstone of an effective solution.

Although activists are suspicious enough of Princeton’s current staff and administrators to demand more transparency, they’re also confident that the bureaucracy of the near future will share their values, or at least more reliably advance their preferred ends. Their approach is radically different from that of civil-libertarian critics of Title IX excesses, who look to rein in administrators through the courts rather than attempt to hire like-minded ones.

The student activists may have the more effective short-term approach. I predict that Princeton administrators, who’ve already agreed to an outside audit of their Title IX proceedings, will ultimately agree to more of the reforms that the students put forth, if only because college administrators are more inclined than anyone else to see the benefits of three dozen more college administrators.

So student activists should bear one last argument in mind before entering into summertime meetings with Princeton leaders. Its author is the educator Freddie deBoer, who observes that university bureaucracies, like all corporate structures, serve corporate interests, not those of the people within them–– “and so these efforts are often designed to spare the institutions from legal liability rather than protect the individuals who would be harmed by sexual harassment.”

DeBoer goes on to warn student activists that the administrators who run their universities, “no matter how convenient a recipient of their appeals, are not their friends,” and that appealing to them often results “in something like collusion between activists and administrators” rather than a more just system.

Title IX in particular can be a powerful tool for justice, he argues, but when wielded by bureaucratic functionaries, it can be abused, becoming “an instrument of power, not of the powerless.” As the law “compels the self-protective, legalistic wings of universities to grind into gear, for fear of liability and bad publicity, invocations of Title IX frequently wrest control of the process and the narrative from student activists themselves, handing it to bureaucrats.”

Princeton bureaucrats have been focused on campus sexual assault for a quarter century now. And in the telling of the student activists, they’ve yet to meet even minimal ethical and procedural standards. So why pour millions more into the same hierarchies, expanding the might, measured in total staff, of their leaders?

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