ARLINGTON, Va. — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declared on Thursday that "the era of 'rule by letter' is over" as she announced plans to change the way colleges and universities handle allegations of sexual assault on campus.
DeVos vowed to replace a set of rules enacted by the Obama administration in a 2011 memo known as the "Dear Colleague Letter," which she said created a system that failed students.
"Instead of working with schools on behalf of students, the prior administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students," she said in a speech at George Mason University.
DeVos repeatedly spoke about protecting the rights of both victims and students who are accused of sexual assault, saying the conversation has wrongly been framed as "a contest between men and women."
She didn't detail how the rules will change but said her office will seek feedback from the public and universities to develop new rules.
The announcement was applauded by critics who say the rules are unfairly stacked against students accused of sexual assault, while advocacy groups for victims denounced DeVos's message as a step backward.
Andrew Miltenberg, a New York lawyer who represents students accused of sexual assault, said he was encouraged by the recognition that accused students have been mistreated.
"Up until now, everyone's been terrified of saying what she said because the fear is it would be seen as being against victims' rights," he said.
Activists from Know Your IX, an advocacy group for sexual-assault survivors, said the speech sent the message that colleges won't be held accountable for protecting students.
"I really fear that DeVos will take us back to the days when schools routinely violated survivors' rights and pushed sexual assault under the rug," said Sejal Singh, a policy coordinator for the group.
Debate has flared in recent years over the 2011 guidance from the Obama administration, which requires schools to investigate all complaints of sexual assault and details how they must conduct disciplinary proceedings.
Critics say the rules call on campus officials with little legal experience to act as judges, and many say the standard of evidence required by the rules is too low.
Unlike in criminal courts, where guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, colleges were told to judge students based on whether it's "more likely than not" they committed the offense.
Schools that violate the rules can lose federal funding entirely, although that penalty has never been dealt.
DeVos echoed critics during parts of her speech, blasting the rules for creating "'increasingly elaborate and confusing guidelines" and relying on the "lowest standard of proof."
"Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined," she said. "These are non-negotiable principles."
At the same time, she made clear that "acts of sexual misconduct are reprehensible, disgusting and unacceptable" and must be addressed head-on.
"Never again will these acts only be whispered about in closed-off counseling rooms or swept under the rug," she pledged.
The speech drew about two dozen protesters who gathered outside the auditorium, including some women who said they were assaulted on their campuses. Among them was Meghan Downey, 22, a recent graduate from the College of William & Mary, who said she doesn't want the Trump administration to "attribute more validity to the voices of the accused."
Some education leaders from the Obama administration disputed the characterizations made in DeVos's speech.
Catherine Lhamon, who led the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights under President Barack Obama, defended the guidelines and said they have repeatedly been upheld by courts.
She added that her office frequently ruled on behalf of students accused of sexual assault, and rebuked DeVos for opening the rules to what she called "essentially a popular vote."
"I thought she used her voice for ill today in a way that was damaging and distressing, but I believe our colleges will continue to fulfill their obligations," Lhamon said in an interview.
Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement that the Trump administration is "once again choosing politics over students, and students will pay the price."
Leaders of some colleges issued swift statements saying they'll continue to follow the guidelines established under Obama, including at Bentley University, a private school of about 5,500 students west of Boston.
"Our commitment to these protections for all of our students, faculty and staff remains as strong today as ever," Bentley President Gloria Larson said.
Others said it's too soon to know how a shift in federal policy would play out on campuses.
Terry Hartle, senior vice president of American Council on Education, said it's unclear how long the existing rules will remain in effect, but that colleges will follow them until told otherwise.
Hartle, whose group represents 1,800 college and university presidents, said he didn't think DeVos's speech indicates she's backing away from the issue.
"The Obama administration took a very important step and raised the importance of the issue," Hartle said. "But they missed the target, and we need to go back and ask whether or not we've got the policies and procedure in place that we should."
Binkley reported from Boston.