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December 2, 2012

Russlynn Ali Departs

Increasing the likelihood that innocent college students in the future will instead be branded rapists is a legacy of which few government officials can boast. Yet this was the prime accomplishment of Russlynn Ali, who announced late last week that she would be stepping down as director of the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights.

Ali, of course, is best-known for the 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter mandating that colleges use the lowest threshold for adjudicating sexual assault and harassment cases (and only sexual assault and harassment cases) on campus. The move appeared to be a solution in search of a problem: apart from various activist groups, few had been championing such a sweeping assault on campus civil liberties, and even many college administrators (not exactly a due process-friendly group) seemed skeptical of Ali's order.

Ali distinguished herself as much for her arrogance as for her extremism. Despite ordering a radical change in how colleges structured their disciplinary processes, Ali proved highly reluctant to defend her handiwork. Twice, FIRE penned letters expressing concerns about the potentially deleterious effects of Ali's assault on due process; twice, Ali declined to respond. (FIRE senior vice president Robert Shibley responded tartly to Ali's departure, "While we wish Ms. Ali the best, we hope her successor will end OCR's silence regarding widespread concerns about the fundamental due process rights of students and faculty members.") It wasn't just FIRE that Ali deemed unworthy of a response; due process concerns raised by the AAUP likewise went unanswered.

While she ignored civil liberties groups like FIRE and even groups like AAUP, Ali did find time to talk about her vision to The Root. There, in what a fawning reporter breathlessly described as her "raspy voice," Ali pronounced her commitment to "fundamental fairness." Apparently unaware of the irony, she then gloated how it was "stunning" to see how "quickly" colleges and universities had responded to her demands that they weaken the due process protections available to accused students. For Ali, "fundamental fairness" applied only to some, not all, students.

Ali's handiwork was so pernicious because the college disciplinary process already was so heavily tilted against accused students. (The Shadow University provided an early public exposure of this problem; if anything, the situation since then only has grown worse.) The premise from which she operated--that accusers didn't have a sufficient chance to have their voices heard--was nothing short of absurd.

A final note: Ali's campaign against campus civil liberties succeeded in part because Congress failed in its oversight task. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee found time for hearings on such education-related matters as "Beyond Seclusion and Restraint: Creating Positive Learning Environments for All Students" but didn't look into Ali's actions (even, remarkably, as the committee did have a hearing on Title IX, which the ex-OCR head had used as the legal justification for her mandate). The House Education and Workforce Committee, meanwhile, found time for hearings criticizing the government's (largely student-friendly) role in the student loan program, but like its Senate counterpart couldn't find time to inquire why the administration opposed due process on campus.

This reticence in oversight ensured that, at least in the light of day, Ali would never have to defend the indefensible. Hopefully, her successor will respect the need for due process in a way that Ali never did.

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Published by the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Insitute's Center for the American University.