Students Sue Hillsdale College for Inadequate Response to Sexual Assaults, Testing the Limits of Title IX

The lawsuit could have enormous consequences, vastly expanding Title IX to cover all tax-exempt educational institutions, regardless of whether they accept federal funding. 

Hillsdale College is a private conservative Christian liberal arts college in in Hillsdale, Mich., that maintains an outsized reputation within conservative circles. It welcomed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to speak on April 6, 2023. (Chris duMond / Getty Images)

Two students have filed a federal class-action lawsuit accusing Hillsdale College, a small but influential religious institution in rural Michigan, of failing to establish and enforce proper policies for preventing and responding to sexual assaults, thereby creating a hostile educational environment and exposing students to a high risk of sexual assault. While Hillsdale boasts of its adherence to conservative Christian values and the safety of its campus, the students claim the college conducts inadequate sexual assault investigations without transparency or accountability, issues arbitrary decisions, and silences and blames survivors. 

The case raises crucial questions regarding the rights of students who experience sexual assault at institutions which don’t accept federal funding, like Hillsdale, to avoid federal government oversight, including Title IX sexual assault investigation guidelines.

Plaintiffs argue that Hillsdale breached multiple legal obligations to protect students and that Title IX should still apply because its tax-exempt status provides a form of federal financial assistance. This legal argument, if successful, could have enormous consequences, vastly expanding Title IX to cover all tax-exempt educational institutions, regardless of whether they accept federal funding. 

The Allegations

Former Hillsdale student Danielle Villarreal filed a sexual assault complaint in 2021 with both Hillsdale’s administration and the police. She claims that Hillsdale failed to investigate her complaint properly, refused to provide written documentation, suggested that she was falsely claiming rape after a consensual sexual encounter and threatened her when she requested additional information about the investigation. As a result, Villareal suffered extreme emotional distress and ultimately transferred to another school. 

Grace Chen, currently a Hillsdale junior, provided Hillsdale authorities with a written account of her 2021 rape and was promised a full investigation. Instead, the school failed to thoroughly investigate the crime or interview witnesses, did not protect her from her assailant and did not explain its findings in writing despite her repeated requests for documentation. 

The courageous women bringing this lawsuit want to make sure Hillsdale makes the appropriate institutional changes so no future student will have to suffer what they did.

Annika K. Martin

Villarreal and Chen claim that Hillsdale has a duty to protect students but is negligent regarding student safety, failing to provide clear sexual assault reporting instructions or adequate emotional and institutional support. They allege that Hillsdale silences, threatens and blames survivors, not their assailants, for their assaults and issues inadequate punishments and safety accommodations. In Chen’s case, this meant she was forced to see her rapist in class and on campus. 

The lawsuit alleges that despite Hillsdale’s institutional failures regarding sexual assault complaints, it continues to misrepresent the campus as a safe space for students. Chen and Villarreal claim that they chose to attend Hillsdale because they and their families erroneously believed they would be safe there.

“Hillsdale College has a duty to protect the safety and well-being of its students, and it failed,” said Annika K. Martin, lead counsel for plaintiffs, of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein. “Not only did it fail to prevent the sexual violence that occurred, but it also failed to respond properly when my brave clients reported the assaults. In failing to properly respond, the college exacerbated the harm to already traumatized victims of sexual violence. The courageous women bringing this lawsuit want to make sure Hillsdale makes the appropriate institutional changes so no future student will have to suffer what they did.”

Activists attend a Title IX rally at Lafayette Park near the White House on Dec. 5, 2023, in Washington, D.C., and called on President Biden to finalize a new Title IX rule to help protect victims of sexual assault and LGBTQIA+ students on college campuses. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Plaintiffs are requesting the implementation of comprehensive rules and procedures regarding how students should report sexual assault and a consistent approach to responding to complaints from students in a humane and trauma-informed manner.

Current Hillsdale Sexual Assault Policy

Hillsdale College maintains a written sexual misconduct policy, but according to experts, the policy falls far short of best practices, including government-mandated guidelines developed to comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 which prohibits discrimination based on sex by “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 

Hillsdale’s policy grants school administrators complete discretion to determine the course of sexual assault investigations, in essence negating the efficacy of the policy itself. Regarding disciplinary action, the policy states: “At all times, it is within the College’s discretion to determine which policies apply and whether action will be taken…”

Hillsdale’s refusal to make commitments outlining how it will handle investigations allows it maximum leeway but leaves students without any rights or clarity regarding how their complaints will be handled, and without recourse if the investigation is incomplete. 

“The Hillsdale College policy gives the impression that it was written by people who are familiar with the issues sexual violence victims care about, but they have reserved discretion for the school every step of the way,” said Nancy Chi Cantalupo, Wayne State University law professor and Title IX expert. ‘Those reservations make clear that they are also saying, ‘You have no rights under this policy and cannot demand particular treatment from the college.’ By having a policy that gives no actual rights to students, Hillsdale College attempts to appear like it will take care of students, but in actuality, they have no rights under the policy.”  

Plaintiffs argue that even if the school followed its policy, the results would still be deficient due to flaws such as the failure to discuss consent, inadequate instructions regarding what to do in case of assault and the lack of anonymity or confidentiality in investigations.

Lack of confidentiality is especially relevant for Chen, whose personal information was shared by Hillsdale with an outside investigator without her consent. 

Testing the Reach of Title IX

The lawsuit further argues that Hillsdale should still be subject to Title IX regulations under its tax-exempt status, which essentially functions as a government subsidy and thus constitutes federal financial assistance. 

This argument has already succeeded in cases against K-12 schools in Maryland and California. A Maryland case found in 2022 that a Christian high school received federal financial assistance under its tax-exempt status and therefore was subject to Title IX, citing Regan v. Taxation With Representation, a 1980 Supreme Court case finding that a “tax exemption has much the same effect as a cash grant to the organization.” The judge further argued that since religious institutions must follow the anti-discrimination mandates of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by extension they should be required to follow Title IX’s requirements as its provisions were modeled after Title VI. The case is currently being appealed. 

In the California case, a U.S. district court judge noted the unsettled and conflicting case law, with some courts finding that tax-exempt status without more evidence to federal funding is insufficient to compel compliance with Title IX and others finding that tax exemption alone was enough. However, the court finally ruled that without any controlling precedent or strong legislative history to the contrary, tax-exempt status was a form of federal financial assistance obligating compliance with Title IX.

By having a policy that gives no actual rights to students, Hillsdale College attempts to appear like it will take care of students, but in actuality, they have no rights under the policy.

Nancy Chi Cantalupo

Hillsdale’s Response to the Lawsuit

Hillsdale claims that the lawsuit presents serious mischaracterizations and filed a motion on Dec. 22 to dismiss the suit altogether, asserting that the school’s investigations were sufficient. Hillsdale also argues that it does not accept federal financial assistance to maintain its “independence in every regard” so is not required to follow Title IX guidelines. Requiring it to adhere to those guidelines solely by virtue of its tax-exempt status would “upend our constitutional order,” Hillsdale argues, a position that has become a conservative rallying cry against alleged government overreach.

Hillsdale maintains an outsized reputation within conservative circles, fashioning itself as a model of resistance to “progressivism” in academia and positioning itself as a thought leader in conservative politics.

Plaintiff’s attorney Martin responded, “Hillsdale College’s motion to dismiss the case is typical for institutions seeking to avoid liability for what they let happen to students on their watch. However, holding Hillsdale College accountable is essential to drive needed institutional changes and prevent future students from experiencing the same suffering as our clients.”

Whether or not Hillsdale’s motion prevails, the case raises important questions regarding the duty of care owed to students at educational institutions that forego federal money. Why should they not be protected by the same consistent and transparent best practices regarding sexual assault investigations as other students?

Exempting certain institutions from that duty based solely on complex legal arguments regarding what constitutes federal financial assistance runs the risk of leaving some students without sufficient recourse for sexual assaults and prioritizing institutional interests over student safety.  

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Michelle Onello is an international human rights lawyer and senior legal advisor at the Global Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that uses international law to advocate for gender equality and reproductive rights.