Catherine Lhamon narrowly survives Senate confirmation, will head Ed Dept’s civil rights arm

Dive Brief:

  • Catherine Lhamon, who led the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights during the Obama administration, will serve in the same role after the Senate narrowly confirmed her in a 51-50 party-line vote Wednesday. Vice President Kamala Harris cast the deciding vote. 
  • Lhamon endured heavy criticism from Republicans. They argued her time at the Education Department was defined by enforcement of sexual violence rules tilted against students accused of these crimes, and by policymaking through improper channels outside the traditional regulatory process. 
  • She will join the department as the Biden administration develops a new rule governing Title IX, the federal law that bans sexual misconduct, including rape, in educational settings. 

Dive Insight:

Lhamon’s presence in the department will fuel claims the Biden administration cares little for civil liberties when adjudicating sexual assault reports on college campuses. 

Men’s rights activists and other critics levied the same accusations against President Joe Biden’s Democratic predecessor, former President Barack Obama, whose guidance on Title IX is credited with increasing national awareness of campus sexual harassment. 

Even some advocates for sexual assault survivors were lukewarm on Biden nominating Lhamon, saying she was too politicized of a figure. Other organizations, however, praised her as a champion of civil rights. 

During the Obama years, Lhamon helped carry out the department’s Title IX guidance, which was not released through regulatory procedures and did not carry the force of law. It spurred concerns the federal government was pressuring colleges to find accused students responsible for sexually violent acts, ignoring their due process rights. 

Lhamon’s rhetoric likely reinforced this narrative. During her tenure at OCR, she said she would willingly cut off federal funding for colleges that violated Title IX, though this never occurred. She started leading OCR in 2013. 

The civil rights arm of the department is charged with ensuring equitable educational access, including protecting students against sexual misconduct and LGBTQ and racial discrimination.

OCR will enforce the Biden administration’s forthcoming regulation on Title IX, a draft version of which the administration intends to publish in May 2022. Survivor activists have urged Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to speed up the timeline for the rule’s release. 

The regulation will replace one issued by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Survivor advocates criticized her rule for limiting the scope of sexual assault allegations that colleges needed to investigate. It also set up a courtroom-like system for evaluating cases, which critics said dissuaded reporting.

Lhamon blasted the rule, saying it returned colleges to a time when it was “permissible to rape and sexually harass students with impunity.”

In a statement Wednesday, Cardona said Lhamon is “one of the strongest civil rights leaders in America and has a robust record of fighting for communities that are historically and presently underserved.”

Her confirmation required some political maneuvering. The Senate’s education committee in August failed to advance her nomination in a tie on party lines, which led to a separate vote to advance it to the full Senate.

Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican and ranking member of the committee, had said Lhamon’s history with the Obama administration was “deeply troubling if not outright disqualifying.”

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