DALLAS -- Southern Methodist University is among the 55 colleges and universities that the Education Department announced Thursday are under Title IX investigation for their handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints.
'The matters under review by the Education Department have been investigated by SMU and predate our University task force review of sexual misconduct policies and procedures,' said a statement released Thursday afternoon by the university. 'The University has been aggressive in putting into practice wide-ranging new procedures to inform and protect our students, to provide prompt and effective resolution of complaints, and to hold violators accountable while treating all students fairly.'
Besides SMU, the only other Texas higher-ed institution to make the list was the University of Texas Pan-American in Edinburg, Texas. The schools on the list are big and small, public and private, and even Ivy League schools, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Dartmouth.
'It's going to force these universities to have transparency and to really be on top of it,' said Bobbie Villareal, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center. 'I think it's better for everybody. It's great to put schools feet to the fire and really make them accountable.'
Villareal also said that SMU has come a long way in efforts to confront sexual violence.
'The Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center has met with them several times and has some prevention work in process for their orientation program coming up in the fall,' Villareal said. 'With the administration, they are really taking responsibility and looking at the problem.'
Federal officials cautioned that a school's inclusion on the list does not mean that it has violated the law, but that an investigation is ongoing.
'We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue,' said Catherine E. Lhamon, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights, in a statement.
The Title IX law forbids schools that receive federal funds from discriminating based on sex. The laws guarantees equal access to college sports for women, but it also regulates institutions' handling of sexual violence and increasingly is being used by victims who say their schools failed to protect them.
If a university doesn't comply with the law, the Education Department can withhold federal funding. The department has so far not used that power, and has instead negotiated voluntary resolutions to the violations.
In recent years, SMU has been buffeted by controversy over how university officials have handled sexual assaults.
In February, a student filed suit against SMU and the man she says attacked her in a campus dorm room in 2012. The student's lawsuit alleged that the university's system for handling sexual assaults failed her, that she wasn't told that she could have her case reviewed by the DA's office, and she wasn't given answers to basic questions on how the process worked.
In 2012, the university's president ordered the creation of a task force to review the sexual misconduct policies following concerns raised by the Dallas County District Attorney's Office.
That report, released in April 2013, made 41 separate recommendations, including encouraging students to report sexual assault to the university police or other law enforcement, enhancing education and prevention efforts, and providing more counseling resources to victims.
The Education Department's decision to release the list of schools comes days after a White House task force issued a report that promised greater government transparency on sexual assault matters in higher education. The task force announced the creation of the website, notalone.gov, offering resources for victims and information about past law enforcement actions on campuses. The task force also made numerous recommendations for schools, such as identifying confidential victim's advocates and conducting surveys to better gauge the frequency of sexual assault on campus.
The department said from now on that it would keep an updated list of schools who are under Title IX investigation, and will make it available to the public upon request.
'One-in-five colleges females will be sexually assaulted during her tenure at a university,' Villareal said. 'As the mother of a daughter who is getting ready to go away to college, it is extremely frightening. It's not shocking to me, because we always knew that this was an age range that was a high victimization, but it is shocking to see how many people say that they simply wouldn't report.'
SMU's statement applauded the Education Department's 'efforts to eradicate sexual violence on college campuses and to provide universities with additional tools to combat sexual assault. Our goals are the same.'
'We are pleased that the White House also has made these matters a priority for all American universities,' the SMU statement said. 'No issue is more important than the health and safety of our students.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.