Guest Commentary

Missouri bills, while well-intended, could weaken Title IX and hurt students

Greg Gunderson, president of Park University in Parkville
Greg Gunderson, president of Park University in Parkville

Over the last decade, our nation and its universities have all struggled to find ways to educate and protect students from sexual assaults. We all share the desire for a higher education experience where fear is replaced by understanding, and where newly minted adults learn appropriate ways to interact with each other. While imperfect, Title IX is intended to help create such a world. Today, college students across our nation can raise concerns and have cases reviewed with discretion and confidentiality ensured for all parties. That may be about to change in Missouri.

The Missouri General Assembly is considering legislation designed to create a unique interpretation of sex discrimination for all public and private higher education institutions in our state. These bills, Senate Bill 259 and House Bill 573, would support the rights of those accused in sexual assault under Title IX, and in the process, undermine the rights of victims who report such assaults. Under this legislation, any party subject to a Title IX issue could request a formal public hearing before Missouri’s Administrative Hearing Commission, requiring lawyers and all the trimmings of a court case, including public disclosure of the names of students involved.

College students who report concerns are afforded confidentiality today under federal law. Many of these cases can be handled internally with counseling or restrictions that meet the needs of a specific issue, while others require more formal responses, including handing them over to law enforcement.

It is fair to ask why we shouldn’t subject accusations of sexual assault to a legal standard. After all, isn’t that what our criminal justice system provides? Those who file Title IX complaints certainly have the right to raise their concerns in our courts, and they should always feel empowered to exercise that right. But Title IX also affords them a chance to do that within their own institutions, with some assurance that their complaints can remain private and that there is room for a response outside the courts.

When we create barriers that make people unwilling to report abuse, we don’t eliminate the problem. We instead run the risk of creating an environment where problems may become more deeply hidden — or worst of all, go unreported.

It is also unclear what these bills mean related to the many other facets of Title IX. Since 1972, Title IX has banned sex discrimination in our schools, effectively expanded access to sports and the sciences for women, provided safeguards against bullying, and elevated the rights of pregnant women and parents. The uncertainty about how far the new oversight of this legislation could extend into other critical aspects of Title IX is worrisome.

While our current system is not perfect, it is enforced across the nation consistently under federal law. These new bills would put Missouri out of compliance with Title IX, risking the federal financial aid that the vast majority of students in our state use to fund their education. If passed, institutions with campuses in other states or online students would be in the position of violating state laws.

For Park University, where we teach students in 22 states and worldwide online, and where more than two-thirds of those students serve or are veterans of our armed services, it would create an almost impossible administrative burden, requiring students to travel to Missouri to have their cases heard. I doubt our students who are in active service to our country would be able just to abandon their posts and comply with the stand-alone requirements of this law unique to our state.

At the end of the day, this new law would likely lead many students who are traumatized by violations of Title IX committed against them never to report the incidents. And it could also deny the rest of our students access to federal aid and federal-backed loans.

I ask all who care for our Missouri students, including those who serve in the military, to tell your state lawmakers that SB 259 and HB 573, while well-intentioned, do not serve the interest of Missouri.

Greg Gunderson is president of Park University in Parkville.