Betsy DeVos Says She Will Rewrite Rules on Campus Sex Assault

ARLINGTON, Va. — Saying that the Obama administration’s approach to policing campus sexual assault had “failed too many students,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said on Thursday that her administration would rewrite the rules in an effort to protect both the victims of sexual assault and the accused.

Ms. DeVos did not say what changes she had in mind. But in a strongly worded speech, she made clear she believed that in an effort to protect victims, the previous administration had gone too far and forced colleges to adopt procedures that sometimes deprived accused students of their rights.

“Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach,” she said in an address at George Mason University in suburban Arlington, Va. “With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today.”

Advocates for assault victims reacted strongly and swiftly, as did Arne Duncan, who was education secretary during most of the Obama administration.

“This administration wants to take us back to the days when colleges swept sexual assault under the rug,” Mr. Duncan said in a statement. “Instead of building on important work to pursue justice, they are once again choosing politics over students, and students will pay the price.”

Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy for the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, noted that courts have reversed some punishments handed down by campus administrators.

“I think DeVos laid out a sensible, responsible approach to crafting a more measured policy that can better secure the rights of all involved,” he said.

In recent years, campuses across the country have been roiled by high-profile sexual assault cases. A scandal involving the Baylor University football team ultimately led to the removal of the school’s president, Kenneth W. Starr, the former independent counsel whose work led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

A 2015 survey of students at 27 schools, commissioned by the Association of American Universities, found that nearly one in four women had complained of sexual assault or sexual misconduct. Advocates for victims seized on the study, but as with similar reports, it was criticized by some for overstating the problem, and even its authors acknowledged that it had limitations.

Though Ms. DeVos said she believed that accused students were often mistreated, she also said that victims were being ill-served by a quasi-judicial process that lacked the sophistication required for such sensitive matters.

Ms. DeVos repeatedly used the term “survivors,” a term often preferred by victims when speaking of sexual assault. And she also vowed that colleges would not return to the days when sexual assault complaints were ignored.

“One rape is one too many,” she said. “One assault is one too many. One aggressive act of harassment is one too many.”

But her remarks focused more heavily on the young men who, she said, were denied due process in campus proceedings, sometimes attempting suicide.

She referred to campus sexual misconduct hearings as “kangaroo courts” that forced administrators to act as “judge and jury.” Referring to scores of lawsuits filed by punished students, she said: “Survivors aren’t well served when they are re-traumatized with appeal after appeal because the failed system failed the accused. And no student should be forced to sue their way to due process.”

She suggested that colleges had gone too far in other types of cases, too. In the speech, Ms. DeVos referred to a case at the University of Southern California in which the football team’s kicker, Matt Boermeester, was suspended from school and kicked off the squad after being investigated for physically assaulting his girlfriend. The girlfriend later spoke out in defense of Mr. Boermeester, saying no assault had happened.

In a statement Thursday, the university said it stood by its investigation, and that evidence from multiple witnesses suggested “an act of violence took place that violated our university codes of conduct and Title IX regulations.”