This month’s astonishing dustup between Baylor University and departing Title IX coordinator Patty Crawford over book and movie rights is troubling but only a minor distraction from the broader, more relevant scenario at hand. And that’s the one concerning Baylor’s much-touted campaign involving campus teams implementing a Philadelphia law firm’s 105 recommendations to more decisively address matters of sexual assault while squaring Baylor with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which oversees such prickly matters.

Irony: However Baylor managed to get crossways with its Title IX coordinator — an individual whom it vigorously touted as critical in turning matters at Baylor around — the conflict was enough for Crawford to resign under pressure, fly to New York and blast Baylor on national TV. Especially damning is her formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging “senior leadership” at Baylor marginalized and undercut her through the summer and into the fall, even as she significantly increased the number of complaints involving sexual assault and the like.

Given Baylor has been attacked and vilified by victims’ rights advocates and the national news media for stifling such matters, one might think Baylor would be proud of Crawford’s work.

What happened? Perhaps Crawford let all this hopeful talk about her go to her head and became a loose cannon on campus, trying to dominate in areas that either weren’t hers to dominate or where others resented her intrusion, justifiable or not. Then again, perhaps others failed to grasp the scope of the problem to the degree she did. As she noted in a lengthy Trib interview two months ago, Crawford was constantly conferring with the Department of Education on murky, ever-shifting and controversial Title IX policy.

In short, there’s the possibility she and Baylor higher-ups unwittingly acted out the back-and-forth struggles over Title IX “guidance” that we now see nationwide. Some university and college presidents and prominent law professors see such department guidance as de facto regulation and executive overreach. Others see this as a legitimate, overdue injection of real justice safeguarding students. All this doesn’t get much play by news media, but it does underline the tension not only between the federal government and academia but also between campus authorities and administrators all across America.

Such disputes pivot sharply on the question of whether federal officials have precipitously increased the liability of universities and colleges by making them more responsible for resolving sexual-assault matters, treating them almost as courts of law when, in fact, universities and colleges lack such judicial necessities as the power of subpoena. Yet universities are reluctant to ignore this guidance, given it’s cited as how such institutions can avoid civil rights investigations regarding the handling of complaints of sexual violence.

Terry W. Hartle, the senior vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education, told Inside Higher Ed (which has done excellent reporting on this subject) that federal officials tend to treat this so-called benign guidance as an “absolute mandate” when civil rights investigations are conducted: “In trying to better deal with allegations of sexual assault on campus, a lot of schools would probably try different approaches and consider different things, but a fear of vague federal mandates limits these efforts. They are hamstrung by uncertainty.”

An essay by Peter Lake, former Title IX coordinator at Stetson University, notes the pressures of the job, including the need to focus on departments across the campus: “It requires eyes virtually everywhere at all times, which is mostly unrealistic and thus exceedingly stressful.” As a Title IX coordinator, “you usually don’t directly supervise many people, but you need a lot of help and cooperation.” He also writes of the rigors of keeping up with Department of Education guidance on Title IX: “Every day is a new day in Title IX, where business as usual is business unusual.”

Did all this play a role in the split between Baylor leaders and Crawford? Almost certainly. It’s further evidence that while the awful scourge of sexual assaults must be strongly addressed and victims sensitively handled, awkward questions remain regarding how proper matters of adjudication actually are for alleged sexual assaults when academic institutions are, whatever else, hardly proper courts of law and inquiry.

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