Betsy DeVos may be in some hot water over $10,000 she gave to an organization that defends free speech and civil liberties.
President-elect Trump’s U.S. Secretary of Education nominee, alongside her billionaire family, gives tens of millions each year to various nonprofits and conservative research organizations. She donated $5,000 in both 2012 and 2013 to the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE.
A controversial article from Politico criticized DeVos for her support of FIRE, given the group’s role in a lawsuit involving a case of alleged sexual misconduct.
The nominee faces opposition from Democratic senators who worry DeVos may be “less vigilant than her predecessors about cracking down on campus sexual assault,” the article stated.
FIRE — a nonpartisan 501(c)3 nonprofit — would not comment on the controversy surrounding DeVos’ donations. The organization does not defend or support lax sexual assault standards, FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley told Carolina Journal.
FIRE defends against violations of constitutional rights on college campuses. The group is funding a lawsuit in which a former University of Virginia law student was punished for alleged sexual misconduct under an unlawful “preponderance of evidence standard” laid down in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
In criminal prosecutions, to convict a defendant a jury must be convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt” — a much tougher standard to meet than the preponderance of evidence.
The OCR mandate allows university administrators to use the lowest standard of evidence when dealing with cases of sexual assault, Shibley said.
“If you have two stories [from both parties involved], and you believe one of them to be more credible than the other, that satisfies the preponderance of evidence standard,” Shibley stated. “So you can pile all the evidence against the other, and whichever one seems slightly more likely to be true, that’s the one that you go with.”
FIRE’s goal is to defend good policy not upheld by the OCR’s preponderance standard.
When a government agency issues a mandate without going through the legislative process, that agency must provide notice of the regulation, and give opportunity for all concerned parties to comment, according to the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946.
OCR’s preponderance mandate, issued via a “dear colleague letter,” ignored those requirements, Shibley said.
The legal system is far more effective in convicting and punishing sexual offenders, he said.
“Colleges have very, very few of the tools that law enforcement has. For example, they usually don’t have concrete evidence gathering abilities, and they don’t have DNA analysis.”
College investigations often neglect building access records and security camera footage, and accused students aren’t protected under Miranda rights, he added.
Still, many don’t recognize the mandate’s flaws and view the standard as an effective way to fight campus sexual assault.
“One of the really unfortunate bits of confusion that has come into this process is that advocates of the preponderance standard seem to, in many cases, have convinced themselves that by using the preponderance standard, they are subjecting students on college campuses to a higher standard of behavior,” Shibley said.
Such views are incorrect, as “the preponderance standard doesn’t mean that you are required to behave any differently. All that means is that the university has to be far less certain that you committed the offense.”
The Trump administration should reform all policies wrongly mandated by the OCR, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-5th District, told CJ.
“Under the Obama administration, the Office for Civil Rights has used so-called guidance and other executive actions to unilaterally impose its own political agenda on classrooms and campuses,” said Foxx, who chairs the House education and workforce committee.
“This executive overreach has taken place without any meaningful opportunities for Congress or the American people to express their views and concerns, resulting in a host of challenges for students, schools, colleges, and universities. The new administration must turn the page on this flawed approach and work to ensure responsible policies are in place that protect the rights of students,” she concluded.
As for DeVos and her involvement in the suit, the $10,000 donation in question is nominal when compared to the philanthropist’s total giving record.
The DeVos dynasty is worth $5.1 billion, and it has given a total of $1.33 billion to various causes, including conservative political candidates, PACs, super PACs, research think tanks, and nonprofits.
One analysis of the family’s 2013 IRS records shows donation totals of $90 million, with 48 percent funneled to education, 27 percent to health and community services, 13 percent to churches and faith organizations, and 12 percent to the arts. That total of donations increased to roughly $94 million in 2014, and $104 million in 2015.
Forbes in 2015 ranked the family 24th out of America’s top 50 philanthropists.