Last May, the faculty approved a policy change that allows the Administrative Board to decline hearing potential cases of sexual assault. While change is welcome and necessary given the Ad Board’s appalling track record on this issue, the College failed to replace the Ad Board with a more comprehensive support system, making Harvard an even more difficult place for victims of sexual assault.
Harvard’s new policy requires that any student who alleges that another student has committed an act of sexual misconduct, which includes behavior ranging from unwanted touching to rape, must provide “sufficient independent corroboration” before the College launches a full investigation. Previously, a full investigation would begin immediately after a student submitted a written account of the misconduct.
This shift in policy caused much upheaval both within and beyond the campus, igniting student protests and reactions of anger from faculty members who voted for the policy without being informed of the magnitude of the change. Pressured to take action, the administration created a new committee to review the College’s responses to sexual assault. The committee will present a final report to Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, Provost Steven E. Hyman, and the faculty by this coming April. The committee, called the Committee to Address Sexual Assault at Harvard (CASAH), which began its review this September, must make substantive recommendations to improve Harvard’s sexual assault education, prevention, resources for victims and disciplinary procedures.
The committee’s first recommendation needs to include increased educational efforts to make every student aware that sexual assault is a non-consensual sexual act involving force, manipulation or coercion; it is an act of aggression and violence. Rape education should be mandatory for every undergraduate and cannot be limited to the first weeks or even the first year of college. It is unlikely that first-year preventative education alone can effectively address the multiple concerns that students potentially face when dealing with the issue of sexual assault. Education needs to be repeated every year.
Unfortunately, even if Harvard implements these improvements in preventative rape education, sexual assault will continue. Currently, sexual assault is extremely under-reported. However, as the silence surrounding sexual violence is lifted, it is quite possible that victims may feel more comfortable reporting in a new climate of support and understanding. Thus, the demand for support services is likely to rise. While Harvard currently has many resources for sexual assault victims, ranging from University Health Services to student support organizations to senior tutors, navigating this complicated web of services is particularly overwhelming for someone dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault.
The committee should recommend that the College create a resource center that would be accessible 24 hours a day and have available all possible information and resources on sexual assault both on and off campus. Additionally, the College should require that all other potential first contacts for students, including Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment advisors and House senior tutors, have mandatory and comprehensive training on issues of sexual assault.
However, while new policies on preventative rape education and resources have been long-needed, the committee should not forget that the College should strive to create a safe community where sexual violence is unacceptable and will be severely punished. It is then of paramount importance that Harvard’s disciplinary system be as accessible as possible. However, this accessibility is hampered by the corroboration rule. In fact, it was realized long ago that this requirement is inappropriate, leading to its repeal from the law books in almost every state, including Massachusetts in 1968. As a result, the committee must recommend the immediate repeal of the corroboration requirement.
Yet, at the same time, a return to the Ad Board’s previous standards is not the solution. Instead, the College must create a new disciplinary board that would be specially trained to handle cases of sexual assault. The investigation and adjudication of sexual assault cases requires a care and expertise that the currently untrained board does not have. Rather, a new or separate board should comprise individuals who express their interest in the fair adjudication of sexual assault complaints. The board should be extensively educated to ensure an understanding of what sorts of behavior constitute sexual assault.
These changes are essential to creating a safe environment at Harvard for all students. Since October, the committee has been visiting each House to gather student input about sexual assault. The next meeting will take place tomorrow in the Cabot House Living Room at 7 p.m. Students should take this opportunity to stress the need for these changes. Students should send letters by e-mail to leancomm@fas or through university mail expressing their concerns. Any student wishing to set up a private, confidental meeting with the committee to speak about these issues is encouraged to do so and should e-mail the committee. Only with student involvement can the committee make a real difference in our lives at Harvard.
Anat Maytal ’05, a Crimson editor, is a government concentrator in Currier House. She is on the board of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence.