If further evidence were needed that campus courts are the wrong place to adjudicate criminal cases and, especially, sexual assault cases, look no further than Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Here, the administrator recently hired to oversee the college’s campus court proceedings is named in a lawsuit for violating a student’s fundamental due process rights.
Following a “thorough vetting process,” this summer Pitzer hired Sandra Vasquez as its new dean of students. In this role, Vasquez is charged with handling student complaints fairly and “ensuring that the rights of all students are upheld” in campus investigations on the basis of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
Title IX served as the basis for the Obama administration’s infamous 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, a series of regulatory “guidelines” which vastly expanded the power and purview of campus courts over sexual assault cases, lowered the standard of proof to obtain convictions, and discouraged colleges from permitting the cross-examination of witnesses—a legal practice one American jurist called “the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.”
Given the tremendous power with which campus administrators are now endowed in these proceedings, one would think that Pitzer College and other institutions like it would strive to appoint fair-minded individuals who are beyond reproach to their campus courts.
But according to a civil complaint and a March court order, in her previous job at UC Santa Barbara, Vasquez and other university officials withheld material evidence from an incoming freshman student defending himself against a false charge of domestic violence at his Title IX hearing last September.
Vasquez and her colleagues then relied upon this evidence in order to sustain an interim suspension against the student and prevent him from beginning his college career.
This “evidence,” however, consisted of an uncorroborated and allegedly completely fabricated account from a campus police officer claiming, in direct contradiction to his official police report, that the student had admitted to committing a crime, as well as an unfounded assertion by the same officer that the student was gang-affiliated.
The student first learned of this evidence in March 2017—months after the hearing at which Vasquez purported to present all of the evidence against him. In the court order, Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle blasted the university for failing to disclose this evidence, a move which he said “seriously prejudiced” the student as he sought to defend himself.
“John Doe is entitled to know all the information against him at the hearing; not via emailing his counsel allegedly critical and decisive information at a later time,” wrote the judge.
Additionally, as the student battled to reverse the suspension, the college stretched its investigation over more than seven months, hoping that he would be discouraged from attending school at all. Yet law enforcement had long since determined that the allegations against the student were unfounded; his accuser even admitted to fabricating them.
“This Court concludes that the University is intentionally doing indirectly what it is unwilling to do directly,” wrote Judge Anderle, who blocked UCSB’s suspension of the student in his March court order. “The University has made a decision to deny John Doe the opportunity to enroll … [b]ut instead of making that decision based upon the facts, the law, and in fairness, it has decided to do it their own way.”
Incredibly, Vasquez, who according to the complaint is alleged to bear direct responsibility for “affirmatively conceal[ing] [the] material evidence” from the student, will be assigned with “ensuring prompt and equitable resolution” of Title IX complaints in her new role at Pitzer.
After our campus publication, The Claremont Independent, broke this story, the response from Pitzer College was striking. Instead of responding to our requests for comment and clarification, the college and Vasquez issued a joint statement two days later, claiming that we “misinterpreted and misrepresented the facts.”
The college also expressed its disappointment with our “reckless and inaccurate reporting” and with what they saw as our failure to “contemplat[e] the potential ramifications to Dr. Vasquez’s professional reputation”—a reputation with which the college is so deeply concerned that neither the administration nor Vasquez have yet to seek even a single correction to our story.
The important thing is to seem to intend to do good. After all, the primary focus of such investigations is the professional esteem in which the college is held by “colleagues,” not justice for the accused or restoration for alleged victims.
Pitzer’s real concern is with its own professional reputation. Either Pitzer College hired Vasquez despite knowing that she is the subject of ongoing litigation alleging that she egregiously violated a student’s rights, or the college conducted a vetting process so inadequate that it failed to uncover the fact of this suit.
In either case, the hiring of Vasquez evinces just how ill-suited colleges are to serving as judge, jury, and executioner—particularly in sexual assault cases which are already fraught with complicated and complicating factors.
Lawyers and judges who may have engaged in unethical conduct are summarily disciplined and disbarred, but college administrators who may have violated students’ rights are passed along, praised, and promoted. The important thing is to seem to intend to do good. After all, the primary focus of such investigations is the professional esteem in which the college is held by “colleagues,” not justice for the accused or restoration for alleged victims.
Where the law provides a multitude of structural protections for both the accuser and the accused, campus Title IX proceedings lack these protections and are often designed to generate convictions. A high sentencing rate protects colleges from federal scrutiny and gives these institutions a credible response to complaints that they have not done enough to stop sexual assault on campus.
This status quo on campus is unacceptable—both for accusers and the accused.
The Trump administration’s decision this month to roll back President Obama’s Title IX guidance should be a first step toward transforming broken campus adjudication procedures across the country. Students need just and accountable processes that safeguard everyone’s rights while effectively addressing campus sexual violence.