The Department of Education announced today that it has opened a new investigation into Cornell’s handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints under Title IX.
The department’s Office for Civil Rights began this probe last week, simultaneously opening investigations at Princeton University and Duke University, according to POLITICO. Cornell has been scrutinized by the department four times and was last investigated in 2015, regarding “possible violations” of Title IX, The Sun previously reported.
Two students — Wolfgang Ballinger ’17 and a student using the name “John Doe” — have also filed suits against Cornell this summer, alleging that the University conducted sexual assault investigations against them “unlawfully,” The Sun reported.
Ballinger — who was charged with assaulting a female student at his Psi Upsilon fraternity house in January — claimed in his civil suit that the University’s “flawed” investigation of the incident did not comply with state regulation, according to court documents. The documents point out that a defendant must be allowed to prevent evidence and testify at a hearing under New York State Education Law.
Doe also filed a suit in May complaining that Cornell did not allow him a hearing before suspending him from school in accordance with a process he called “arbitrary and capricious.” He demanded that the University halt its disciplinary proceedings and pay him $500,000 in compensation for his suspension.
Both suits find fault with the University’s Policy 6.4, pointing out perceived disparities between Cornell’s internal system of justice and state education law. Policy 6.4 was criticized in a December 2015 report and is currently under revision; an updated version of the regulations is expected to be released on Aug. 31.
Cornell last faced Department of Education review in the summer of 2o15. Last year’s investigation was suspected to have been partially prompted by Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant J.D.’s ’88 March confession that the University’s processing of sexual assault complaints was taking longer than the 60 day requirement established under Policy 6.4.
Federal guidelines also dictate that these allegations should be processed in 60 days. However, Grant had attributed a more protracted timeline to both inadequate staffing and additional procedural steps, The Sun reported.
“We’re still trying to streamline the process and get the timeline more in line with [the requirements of Policy 6.4], but as we evaluate the value of a speedy process versus a thorough process, we’re opting for the thorough,” Grant said in March of 2015.
The opening of Cornell’s fourth federal probe mirrors a national proliferation of Title IX investigations at schools across the country. Over 300 separate Department of Education investigations are currently open and ongoing, according to The Huffington Post.
“Harassment investigations tend to be highly complex and often involve systemic issues, in addition to issues pertaining to specific students,” the Department of Education said in a statement this June. “As part of its investigation process, [the department] gathers information through a variety of methods such as data requests, interviews and site visits and analyzes all relevant evidence from the parties involved in the case to develop its findings.”
The department has also suffered from a lack of funding and subsequent inability to hire new personnel — a challenge made stark as sexual violence complaints have increased exponentially, the statement said. Several senators, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), have released statements calling for more substantial allocations to the department.
As the number of open cases and complaints have skyrocketed, trends show investigations tend to take more time to resolve, making the timeline of any query nebulous, according to The Huffington Post.
Cornell’s media relations department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the active investigation.