By Scott Malone
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Reuters) – U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was confronted by largely silent protesters holding signs opposing the Trump administration’s promotion of for-profit schools and changes to how colleges handle sex assault allegations at a speech at Harvard University on Thursday.
DeVos ignored the protesters, but took questions from audience members on issues, including a White House move to reverse Obama-era guidance on how colleges should handle allegations of sexual assault on campus.
“One sexual assault is one too many, but by the same token, one that is denied due process is one too many,” DeVos said. “So we need to be sure that policy is fair to all students.”
More than a dozen protesters stood in the crowd holding signs reading “protect survivors,” and “our students are not 4 sale.” Many others stood or sat with raised fists.
As the event wrapped up and DeVos headed for the exit, the crowd broke into loud chants, including: “This is what white supremacy looks like!”
The administration last week reversed guidelines established under former President Barack Obama on how colleges should handle sexual assault allegations, saying the prior policies led to too many students being falsely charged and disciplined.
The prior rules outlined a strict set of steps for schools to follow or risk losing funding under Title IX, the federal law that bars sex discrimination in education. Opponents of those rules said that they allowed schools to use lower standards of evidence of those followed in criminal proceedings.
While the cheers and jeers of protesters gathered outside the venue could faintly heard as DeVos spoke, the event avoided the scenes of students shouting down conservative speakers seen at universities around the United States over the past year. That trend that has drawn the scrutiny of the Justice Department.
Several activists also expressed concern that the administration’s support of shifting funding from public schools to charter, private and for-profit schools would hurt low-income and minority communities.
“If you are trying to help a community, first you need to listen to what they need,” said Latoya Gayle, a mother of three. “If she listened more, I think she would hear that what people need is not what she thinks they need.”
DeVos, a billionaire who has drawn fire for her advocacy of for-profit schools, is married to the heir and former chief executive of Amway. She was confirmed in February when Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; editing by David Gregorio, G Crosse)