Why We’re Honored To Host Betsy DeVos At Our University’s Commencement

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Jim Towey President of Ave Maria University
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As self-appointed guardians of political correctness and progressive purity plot elaborate protests on America’s college campuses against conservative commencement speakers this spring, Ave Maria University is proud to welcome one of our nation’s most controversial but effective public servants, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to our commencement exercises next month.

AMU is a small but growing Catholic liberal arts institution in southwest Florida that is celebrating its 15th year. National media featured us last September when Hurricane Irma menaced our campus and our students helped provide aid and comfort to local residents.  We thankfully survived, and not just through the power of prayer. In a strange way, we also had the Obama Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to thank for teaching us how to weather eight years of Category 5 storm conditions.  

The regulatory storm came in the form of so-called “guidance” letters issued by OCR, which would have made George Orwell blush.  OCR bypassed standard regulatory procedures, hijacked the lawmaking authority of Congress, and decreed its new policies. The message was clear:  play by the government’s new rules or give up federal money.

One of the biggest threats to Ave Maria and other higher education institutions in the Obama era was the 2011 OCR directive on how colleges were to proceed in investigating Title IX sexual assault claims on campus.  While the goal was widely supported – to ensure colleges “take immediate and effective steps to respond to sexual violence in accordance with the requirements of Title IX” – the implementation and fear of a forced settlement agreement meant that university officials everywhere scrambled to hire “regulatory czars” and more staff to deal with the mountain of new requirements.  By government edict, the evidentiary standard on sexual assault cases was lowered to a “preponderance of the evidence test” and any college with a higher standard or other safeguards for the accused had to amend their procedures and rules . . . or else.

This clear overreach by social engineering zealots in the upper echelons of the Department defeated the laudable intent of protecting students from sexual assault and bringing justice to perpetrators.  OCR boasted at the end of Obama’s eight years that it had “proactively initiated” over 200 investigations and received a record-breaking 76,022 complaints. Maybe so, but the dragnet also surely victimized students wrongfully accused of sexual assault.  In addition to being denied their right to due process, they have and will suffer immeasurably from the ordeal. Many colleges chose not to defend their practices but instead took the equivalent of a “plea deal” by signing “resolution agreements” to escape OCR’s investigative tentacles.    

Then the OCR storm gathered strength.    

In 2014, the Office issued (or rather, force-fed) to colleges a new interpretation of Title IX, stating that “Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”  That sweeping pronouncement was news to lawmakers and jurists alike, as well as university presidents. Was having single-sex dorms or male and female locker rooms now prohibited discrimination?

Two years later, the administration went further and attacked thousands of years of Christian anthropology by redefining gender identity, stating that: “Gender identity refers to an individual’s internal sense of gender.  A person’s gender identity may be different from or the same as the person’s sex assigned by birth.” That proclamation sent shivers to any faith-based or other college like ours who values religious liberty and devotes a great deal of study to theology and the “assigner” who created us.  Were parts of the Old and New Testament now federally-prohibited hate speech? Would we be forced to reconfigure our dorms for fear of having Pell Grant and federal student loan funding withheld?

These were just a few of the storms we weathered before the clock ran out on the Obama administration.   

Enter Secretary DeVos, who immediately saw the imbalanced landscape and came to the rescue.  She restored sanity by shelving some of the guidance letters that OCR had issued, including its ill-advised overreach on Title IX.  She stood up to liberal extremists and provided needed thoughtfulness to our national conversation about gender – one far from settled.  Her advocacy for charter schools, vouchers and other innovative measures designed to liberate children from chronically-failing schools and the “soft bigotry of low expectations” as President George W. Bush famously described, is consistent with her lifelong dedication to the advancement of children of all races and creeds.  

And she has done so almost singlehandedly.  Over a year into her tenure, she has no deputy secretary, undersecretary, general counsel, or heads of the offices that oversee policies covering everything from kindergarten through college.  Partisan politics, special interests and antiquated U.S. Senate rules have blocked their confirmation votes.

Secretary DeVos has found no safe harbor among the elites of our nation’s public schools and institutions of higher learning.  Her public appearances typically trigger rude protests, heckling, and coordinated disinformation campaigns. But she, too, has weathered the storm.  

The courage of her convictions is what led her to agree to serve as our nation’s top education official. It has sustained her in Washington. Our graduates deserve to have a person of her character, faith, lifetime of achievement, and stature in the public square address them on their special day.  She needs no safe space at Ave Maria University.

Towey is President of Ave Maria University and was former Director of President George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.