Nothing represents the abuse of Title IX, the federal ban on sex discrimination in education, more than the case of Professor Richard Paxton at Pacific University in Portland, Oregon.
Paxton is a 15-year veteran of Pacific’s faculty and teaches a class — Foundations of Human Development & Psychology — that covers cognitive development and our ability to continually perceive and absorb information. Paxton uses stories to illustrate this capability. In a September class, he recounted how he and his colleagues were once in New Orleans for a conference and thought they saw women standing outside a bar but later learned they were instead female impersonators.
The anecdote, which he’s told every year he’s taught the class, shows how initial impressions can mislead. It usually gets a laugh. This year, however, it became the source of student complaints — that Paxton was sexist, racist, and homophobic, of course — and a threatened Title IX investigation.
Around 2 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 9, Jennifer Yruegas, the university’s lawyer and its Title IX coordinator, called and texted both Paxton and his wife to request an emergency Zoom meeting. Paxton agreed and attended along with the dean of the College of Education, Leif Gustavson. At that meeting, Yruegas informed Paxton that his in-class anecdote implicated the civil rights of his students.
She then demanded that he resign by the following Monday or else be subjected to a Title IX investigation that would not only terminate his appointment at Pacific University but also ruin his reputation and therefore his prospects for other employment. Yruegas forbade Paxton from speaking to anyone about the matter and banned him from campus. Finally, she told him she would send him his resignation papers, to constitute “a soft landing,” which she did at 5:18 p.m. with a cover email stating, “I made sure there was a clause that the Title IX investigation would not occur.”
Over the weekend, Paxton retained counsel, Robin DesCamp, who emailed Yruegas on Monday to request a meeting. Yruegas refused. DesCamp has since made multiple requests, including for more information about the alleged offense, and to get recordings of Paxton’s classes, which were all online, but she’s been stonewalled.
Today, more than six months later, Paxton has not set foot on campus and the only communication he has received from the school came in December, a “Notice of Allegations” that concludes the university has determined this matter to be “under the Title IX Sexual Misconduct Process,” although “it may be required to switch between the Title IX process and another process.”
Title IX observers know the political pressure to “get tough” on campus sexual assault (led by none other than Joe Biden, although he has been credibly accused of groping female interns) ended up encouraging Title IX officials to railroad many accused students.
One might wonder: How does a nondiscrimination law apply to sexual misconduct? Title IX guarantees equal opportunity in education and, the theory goes, sexual assault can interfere with education access. Sex discrimination was then further broadened to include “hostile environment”-type sexual harassment, which meant Title IX could be used against speech, as in the Paxton case.
Those concerned with fundamental fairness and due process pushed back on the Obama-era weaponization of this law. Under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a new federal regulation on Title IX required schools to treat both complainants and respondents equitably. Schools must offer complainants supportive measures, for example, regardless of the merit of a complaint but, equally important, such measures cannot “unreasonably burden” the respondent. This requirement applies with or without a formal complaint.
While the new regulation allows for administrative leave to be imposed on a non-student employee — such as Paxton — during an investigation, the process must still comply with the regulation’s provisions including “prompt time frames” for written notice of details, “which must include a statement that the respondent is presumed not responsible for the alleged conduct” and must inform the respondent of the right to an advisor and the right to inspect and review evidence.
How to explain Pacific University’s flagrant disregard of its obligations under this new federal regulation? While the Biden administration has signaled its wish to roll back due process rights, it cannot revoke the regulation overnight. Rescission takes time and in the interim, the rule is binding on all schools receiving federal funds, including Pacific.
Still, the Paxton case is telling beyond the school’s noncompliance with the new Title IX rule, although that itself is indeed worrisome. Most obvious is the coercive conduct by not only a high-level official at Pacific University but its own legal counsel.
Pressuring someone to forgo legal rights, as Yruegas has done to Paxton, is a serious ethical violation for any licensed attorney. The Oregon state bar should take note (according to DesCamp, Yruegas has been sued for stealing client money, although this suit was quickly settled).
Second is the “cry bully” phenomenon in which students intimidate faculty and staff by claiming to be sensitive and offended when they are actually offensively targeting those they dislike. In this case, the leading student to complain, according to Paxton, wrote in a class evaluation that she found the class difficult and boring.
Most noteworthy, however, is the atmosphere now found on campus and spilling over into our shared public square. It’s the atmosphere of a minefield where any misstep can ruin you — the exact opposite of an environment of free thought, free speech, and free, civil discourse, the necessary conditions for any real learning.
In place of these conditions is the tense, totalitarianism of Title IX complaints, transforming higher education into higher inquisitions where everyone loses — students and professors alike.
Teresa R. Manning, JD, is Director of the Title IX Project at the National Association of Scholars. She has taught at Scalia Law School of George Mason University, the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College, and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Trump Administration.
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