A young man identified only as “John Doe” has sued the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, saying he was suspended for sexual assault without a fair hearing or even a lawyer to present his side of the story. It’s one of a flood of lawsuits across the U.S. asserting that colleges are trampling the rights of the accused in a rush to crack down on campus rape. St. Thomas denies any wrongdoing. Increasingly, colleges and universities are finding themselves in the awkward position of trying to ferret out what really happened between students behind closed doors, often in alcohol-fueled encounters. And the stakes for getting it wrong have never been higher, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports.
For the past five years, the federal government has threatened to cut off funds to any school that fails to respond quickly and aggressively to reports of sexual assault. Since then, it has launched more than 325 investigations against colleges and universities. The result, says a growing chorus of critics, is that colleges are under pressure to brand students as rapists and kick them out of school as quickly as possible without the kinds of protections they’d find in a real courtroom. “It’s a tremendously unfair dynamic that’s playing itself out,” said Joseph Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Colleges are “practically tripping over themselves to reduce due process so that they don’t land on a [government] list of schools under investigation,” he said. And the federal government is “taking an overwhelmingly one-sided approach to this issue.” At St. Thomas, officials say that there’s nothing one-sided about it, and that they take pains to be fair to both sides in such emotionally fraught situations.