• July 31, 2014

Leader of Department's Office for Civil Rights Is Stepping Down in Postelection Turnover

Russlynn H. Ali

U.S. Department of Education

Russlynn H. Ali used her office to vigorously enforce federal rules against bullying, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment.

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U.S. Department of Education

Russlynn H. Ali used her office to vigorously enforce federal rules against bullying, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment.

Russlynn H. Ali, who is stepping down as head of the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights and assistant secretary for civil rights, is one of several appointees who served during President Obama's first term and are now leaving the administration in a postelection turnover.

To many in higher education, Ms. Ali became the unwelcome face of an agency aggressively extending its regulatory reach in enforcing federal rules against bullying, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment.

Her office's stance was part of a broad effort by the Education Department and the White House to uphold civil-rights laws in education as a means to achieve President Obama's goal to "set our nation on a path to once again lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020," according to a report the Office for Civil Rights released last week summarizing its actions since 2009.

Data in the report show an agency working hard to correct what was sometimes described as lax enforcement of civil-rights laws under previous administrations. From 2009 to 2012, the Office for Civil Rights "investigated and resolved a record number of complaints and entered into robust remedies that attack discrimination at its roots," Ms. Ali wrote in the summary of the report. "We have engaged in unprecedented proactive enforcement, revamped our technical assistance, and expanded our outreach to new levels."

During her tenure, the office took on high-profile investigations, such as one in 2011 that looked into a complaint alleging that a sexually hostile environment existed at Yale University. That investigation, which was resolved in June, did not find the university out of compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law that prohibits sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds. But the case sent a message to colleges that no institution was out of the agency's enforcement reach.

The investigation at Yale began shortly before the office released broad guidance clarifying the necessary steps for colleges to take in investigating sexual-assault cases. That 2011 "Dear Colleague letter" laid out clear requirements for campuses to inform students, administrators, and faculty members about nondiscrimination policies and procedures to enforce the rules.

But some colleges chafed under some of the specifics of that guidance, in particular the requirement that sexual-harassment complaints be evaluated under a "preponderance of the evidence" standard—that is, determining whether it is more likely than not that sexual harassment or violence occurred in order to find an accused person responsible.

That burden of proof is lower than the "clear and convincing" standard that many colleges had been using, which requires finding that it was highly probable or reasonably certain that harassment or violence had occurred.

A year after the guidance was released, many colleges still had not put in place some of the basic requirements, such as designating an employee to to oversee the campus's compliance with Title IX, or having clearly defined policies to investigate charges of sexual discrimination or harassment.

The Education Department has announced that Seth Galanter, deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Office for Civil Rights, will be acting head of the office.

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