Gov. Evers gives UW System go-ahead for sex assault rules

MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers has given the University of Wisconsin System the go-ahead to begin complying with new federal rules that bolster the rights of sexual misconduct defendants and narrow the range of sexual misconduct that colleges must investigate.

Evers in June rejected system officials’ initial scope statement for rules bringing UW into compliance with revisions Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made in May to Title IX, a 1972 law barring discrimination based on sex in education. UW has until Aug. 14 to comply.

Scope statements are vague summaries of the goals state agencies hope to achieve with new rules. The governor must approve a scope statement before an agency can start writing the rules.

Evers wrote in a letter to then-system President Ray Cross that the system's statement didn’t clearly say whether the system would weaken or strengthen the definition of sexual harassment or recognize the economic impact of providing more mental health services for victims frozen out of the complaint process. That same month the governor authorized Attorney General Josh Kaul to join a 17-state lawsuit alleging DeVos’ changes undercut Title IX’s mandate to eradicate sexual discrimination in federally funded education programs.

Documents provided to regents, however, show UW officials submitted revised scope statements to Evers and the governor approved them on June 19, four days after he rejected the initial statement.

The new statements indicate that the system plans to comply with the Title IX changes by updating disciplinary and dismissal policies for faculty and academic staff as well as nonacademic student misconduct policies, noting that federal law allows the system to address sexual misconduct that falls outside the definition of Title IX.

Obama administration guidelines, by contrast, defined sexual harassment as an unwelcome sexual advance. DeVos’ opponents contend her revisions weaken victim protections and will discourage many from reporting misconduct.

The statements also include language stating UW institutions may experience an economic impact from providing resources to victims but don’t quantify it. The statements pledge that UW schools will continue to help all sexual misconduct victims regardless of whether they file a formal complaint.

Cross noted in a letter to Evers on June 18 that the revisions were meant to address the governor's concerns and urged him to quickly approve them.

Cross acknowledged that Wisconsin has joined the lawsuit challenging the Title IX revisions but insisted that until a court blocks the changes the system must move forward to comply. Students and staff could sue the system if it doesn't meet the August deadline, he said, creating more problems for the cash-strapped system as it struggles to reopen campuses this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“In ordinary times, these risks would be of significant concern to us, and in these challenging times, they are doubly concerning,” Cross wrote.

Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said the system revised the scope statements to address the governor's concerns.