It took me just one semester of college covering the Florida legislature as a student to realize how little state lawmakers give a shit about public universities as institutions of higher learning. Sure, they give out money, but it’s largely in the extension of their own interests. In Florida, the Gators lobbied for Gainesville, the Seminoles lobbied for Tallahassee, and the college with the most people in charge got the coolest shit regardless of if it was necessary or even made sense. While in the Florida House of Representatives, John Thrasher helped his beloved Florida State get its own medical school, and in return he got to be university president despite having no qualifications.
So it adds up that Georgia Bulldog and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart can’t stop doing favors for his state university system that really seem to help his alma mater most of all. Last year, when Georgia athletics felt that it needed a 90-day delay in responding to public-records requests for no reason other than that the football coach asked for one, Ehrhart was among the lawmakers behind the bill that made it happen. This year, Ehrhart decided to go a step further and help relieve all state universities in Georgia of their duty to investigate reports of rape on campus.
Georgia House bill 51 has been dubbed the “campus rape bill” and the talking point supporters use is that it will protect men who have been falsely accused of rape. That sounds good, but if you read the bill that’s not really what it does. First, let’s break down a few parts of it (emphasis added here and elsewhere is mine):
Every postsecondary institution in this state that receives information, other than information provided to an employee privileged under the laws of this state, which would lead such institution to reasonably believe that a crime which is a felony under the laws of this state has been committed by a student enrolled in such postsecondary institution or in or on the campus of such postsecondary institution shall promptly report such crime to the campus law enforcement agency or other appropriate law enforcement agency.
Somehow, college administrators who receive reports of rape are going to immediately know all the facts and be able to determine—even though they are neither police nor prosecutors nor jurors nor judges—whether or not a felony happened? That’s impossible. (And do you really want a random college administrator deciding what is “reasonable belief” of a felony?)
Such law enforcement agency shall then determine whether to investigate such alleged criminal offense and whether to report such findings to the appropriate prosecutor’s office.
No shit! They do that, or at least they are supposed to do that, regardless of this dumb bill.
No criminal investigation of such matter shall be undertaken by the postsecondary institution unless such investigation is done by a campus law enforcement agency staffed by law enforcement officers who are certified peace officers by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. Nothing contained in this subsection shall require a victim of an alleged sexual assault to cooperate with law enforcement in any investigation or to participate in any subsequent prosecution
Universities aren’t doing criminal investigations. They’re doing student-conduct investigations, because raping a fellow student violates the student code of conduct. They’ve been strongly, strongly encouraged to do so by the federal government because in the past universities were ignoring the reports and, because rape is a crime that disproportionately affects women, ignoring the reports made it a violation of their equal right to an education.
Universities have to take actions on other crimes as well, but in those cases you often have victims who are much more likely to call the police, who then quickly investigate and produce a result that colleges can rely on for guidance. Women have been asking their universities—and not law enforcement—to do something about rape in large part because of decades of police across the country not investigating the crime seriously.
As expected, Ehrhart’s bill makes no mention of reforming police departments so that women might actually feel like they can go to them and get a full and fair investigation.
Chances are, Ehrhart has thought as deeply about “due process” as he thought about his last effort to help Georgia’s public universities. His explanation for the public-records exemption was that it would level the playing field in recruiting, which was bullshit because no other university in the country had such a guaranteed delay. It happened, his fellow lawmakers later said, because football coach Kirby Smart suggested it.
In this case, Ehrhart has been using the story of a Georgia Tech student who said he was wrongfully expelled due to a false sexual-assault allegation. What happened to the student is horrible. The university system already has had to settle two lawsuits from men who said they were wrongfully expelled from Tech, and later set policies on how hearings should work so colleges aren’t left to make it up as they go along. But as this Mother Jones recap of one hearing shows, Ehrhart seems less interested in fixing wrongs than reminding everyone who is in charge.
In January, Ehrhart called a public hearing of the committee that controls the Georgia university system’s funding. Before an audience of university staffers and members of the accused Georgia Tech fraternity, the mother who had first contacted Ehrhart told the story of her son’s expulsion. (Ehrhart, sensitive to her emotional wellbeing, exempted her from questioning.) Then Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson took the stand, flanked by two of his top administrators. Ehrhart grilled Peterson on the university’s student-misconduct procedures, leaving Peterson stuttering with nerves. Then Ehrhart turned to the other state university presidents in the hearing room. “You think you’ve got an issue with federal bureaucrats threatening your federal funds? This committee controls your funds,” he said, wagging his finger. “If you don’t protect the students of this state with due process, don’t come looking for money—period.”
The next week, Georgia Tech dropped a $47 million state funding request to renovate its library.
“They listen to the federal government over their funding? They needed to listen to me,” Ehrhart says. (According to Georgia Tech’s website, the funding request was put on hold to allow time for additional fundraising.)
Ehrhart later used that “success” in bullying Georgia Tech as proof he could also get an AIDS exhibit at Kennesaw State University shut down if he felt like it.
“I’m going to make it real clear, let’s just put it that way. I had a lot of success in getting Tech’s attention in spending taxpayer money on ridiculous things,” said Ehrhart, referring to his criticism of how the Georgia Institute of Technology handles accusations of sexual assault. Ehrhart said when Georgia Tech ignored his requests, he eliminated the university’s request for a $47 million building.
Of course, this is all probably grandstanding. With Betsy DeVos firmly in place at the U.S. Department of Education, the true gut punch for these Title IX investigations will be when her office issues the expected letter saying they must end. But there’s no reason why that should stop Ehrhart from turning a serious problem into a chance for remind everyone in Georgia how public higher education really works in America: Give your friends what they want, and fuck everyone else.