No Easy Answers

Assessing sexual policies a Harvard's peer institutions

At a May 15 rally to protest the change in Harvard’s handling of sexual assault policies, speakers repeated one phrase—“rape happens at Harvard.”

Few members of the crowd of more than 150 people in front of University Hall disputed that statement.

Last year, seven cases of sexual assault went before the Administrative Board, up from two or three cases in past years. And a University Health Services (UHS) survey two years ago found that just under one percent of students said they had been sexually assaulted at Harvard in the 1999-2000 academic school year.

Where the students and administrators at the rally disagree is not whether rape happens at Harvard but how best to deal with it.

A faculty committee charged with reevaluating how the Ad Board investigates sexual assault cases recommended last fall that the board investigate cases only if the accusations had corroborating evidence.

The recommendations responded to the length and difficulty of Ad Board investigations. Each of the seven cases last year dragged on for three or four months and only one reached a definite conclusion.

Now, the Ad Board will not hear a case unless it includes evidence such as e-mails, a documented visit to UHS or the testimony of someone who spoke to the victim immediately following the incident.

The Faculty’s vote to accept this policy change opened a pandora’s box of questions about Harvard’s resources for and responsibility to sexual assault victims and even suggestions that the Faculty overturn its decision.

Instead, just a few weeks ago, University Provost Steven E. Hyman and Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 formed yet another committee with a broad mandate to look at the resources available to sexual assault victims at Harvard and come up with a set of recommendations.

The committee, which will include students, faculty and administrators, is the third committee formed in the past year to research how Harvard deals with sexual assault.

But the students now campaigning against Harvard’s new policy say they are skeptical as to whether this committee will make a difference. Just Tuesday one Harvard student filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights claiming Harvard’s new policy violates Title IX’s guarantees of gender equality.

Additionally, critics of the policy say a look at the resources available at other schools reveals Harvard to be lacking.

“Harvard’s policy is behind and has moved back with this Ad Board policy,” says Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV) member Lisa C. Lightbody ’03. “But I feel like there’s potential for them to catch up with this committee.”

At schools including Dartmouth, Columbia and Princeton, a women’s center or main office coordinates programs to prevent sexual assault. But none of them provides a ready-made alternative to Harvard’s system.

The Disciplinary System

Harvard’s solution of raising the bar of evidence for the Ad Board to investigate sexual assault cases is unique among its peer institutions. But the frustration behind the decision is not.

Over the past few years, schools including Columbia, Dartmouth and Boston University have struggled to define better the role of the academy in regards to sexual assault cases.

Last spring, David B. Fithian, associate dean of the College and secretary of the Ad Board, conducted an informal study of other Ivy League universities’ disciplinary processes—and concluded that none of them were right for Harvard.

“There are no two practices that are alike,” Fithian says. “What our focus was in looking at other schools’ procedures, what we were interested in particular, was what steps they likely take in peer disputes.”

“No one feels their process works very well,” Fithian adds.

Columbia’s sexual assault policy underwent a tumultuous two-year revamping.

Now, Misumbo Byrd, the director of Columbia’s Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Education, says she feels the school’s policy—which has a separate disciplinary panel only for cases of sexual misconduct—is as good as it can get.

Byrd hears the complaints of alleged sexual assault victims and then convenes Columbia’s disciplinary panel, which is composed of two deans and one student, to gather statements and hear the cases.

The panel records the statements of both the alleged victim and the accused student and broadcasts them in another room so that each student can hear the others’ side without having to face each other.

In contrast, Harvard’s committee decided that tape recording should be prohibited because it gives the process a more judicial feel, where the tape recorded testimony could be used against the accused student in a future criminal trial.

And Columbia has faced its own problems. As at Harvard, accused students at Columbia are not allowed to have a lawyer present at the meetings with the disciplinary panel. According to Byrd, this regulation had originally provoked concern that Columbia was violating the rights of accused students.

Dartmouth’s sexual assault policies have also encountered controversy, coming into the public eye last spring following the college’s decision to derecognize the Zeta Psi fraternity.

The college decided to withdraw recognition following the discovery of an internal house newsletter that contained accounts of a member’s sexual exploits and a decision that the newsletter violated college codes of conduct.

The much-publicized decision raised questions about the efficacy of Dartmouth’s sexual assault policies. But while Dartmouth does not have a specific disciplinary board for sexual assault cases, its equivalent of the Ad Board does include two students. Like Columbia, Dartmouth requires training for the members of the disciplinary board.

This disciplinary board hears cases regardless of the amount of evidence available and even if the alleged victim chooses not to participate in the investigation.

According to Giavanna Munafo, director of Dartmouth’s Women’s Resource Center, cases are typically resolved within a few weeks.

The inherent difficulty of dealing with these cases is a concern at Dartmouth as well, Munafo says.

“I can certainly understand why the people responsible for the process [at Harvard] would want to come up with a way to avoid unnecessary trauma for the people who have been victimized,” Munafo says.

But Munafo says she hopes Dartmouth will never be compelled to follow Harvard’s example and turn away sexual assault cases.

She says it is a university’s responsibility to make sure the disciplinary process serves an educational as well as a punitive function.

Two Divergent Models

Princeton’s sexual assault policy provides a completely different model, with two disciplinary options available.

A student can initiate either a formal disciplinary process, whereby a subcommittee conducts a full investigation, or an informal process, in which designated counselors informally mediate an agreement between accuser and accused.

The subcommittee includes students, faculty and administrators who are trained by the Sexual Harassment and Advising Resources and Education (SHARE) office in how to deal with sexual assault cases.

Throughout the investigation process, the accused student and the victim can hear each others’ testimonies through a speaker system. But unlike at Columbia or Dartmouth, this long-standing system has not recently been questioned.

In contrast, at Boston University, the dean of students alone is responsible for investigating all non-academic infractions—including sexual assault—and deciding on a verdict.

If the dean finds the student guilty, the student can appeal the decision to a panel of three people, including at least one student and one faculty member.

Michael Rosen, associate general counsel for BU, says this system is easier for victims of sexual assault who want to pursue disciplinary action without telling their stories before numerous committees.

“In many cases, if the guilt is clear and established, it may mean that the student won’t even have to testify,” Rosen says.

But the process has also gotten BU in trouble.

A complaint to the U.S. Department of Education is currently pending against BU that charges the university neglected to investigate a sexual assault accusation so that the university could keep down the number of rapes reported on campus.

And last year, BU undergraduate Meghann Horner, who brought a charge of rape to the dean in February 2001, accused the school of conducting an incomplete investigation—finding her alleged assailant not guilty but fining her and mandating drug counseling for the marijuana she used the night of the incident.

“BU is fundamentally patriarchal and misogynistic,” Horner says. “Deep down they have this idea that if you ignore rape it will go away.”

But Rosen, the associate general counsel, says he is confident that the university will be found not guilty of all the charges.

A Centralized Resource

While the Ad Board change has been the biggest news in Harvard’s sexual assault policy this year, the committee that will convene next fall will focus first on another issue—reviewing the preventive education resources the College offers to its students.

CASV members have long argued that Harvard’s resources for victims of sexual assault are substandard when compared to what is available to students at other Ivy League institutions.

During first-year orientation, students learn about how to prevent sexual assault during an hour-long mandatory safety meeting along with other topics like eating disorders and drinking.

Currently, a student who is sexually assaulted can go to one of several University employees specifically designated to deal with sexual assault issues—resident tutors who sign up to be Sexual Assault Sexual Harassment (SASH) tutors, Assistant Dean of the College Karen E. Avery ’87, counselors at the Bureau of Study Counsel or UHS officials.

CASV members argue that none of these individuals are trained specifically to handle sexual assault cases.

But Avery says she feels adequately trained to help sexual assault victims. As an undergraduate, she served as a counselor for Response, a peer counseling service. Training, including a two-hour orientation and speakers every six weeks, is offered to all SASH tutors.

The tutors visited a rape crisis center earlier on this year.

None of this training is mandatory, however.

“We need to improve on telling them this is something you’re supposed to go to,” Avery acknowledges.

The main complaint of CASV, however, is that whatever resources Harvard does offer victims are scattered and not easily accessible.

“Harvard in terms of other schools is lacking a centralized resource,” says CASV member Lightbody. “A lot of other schools have this in a women’s center.”

Harvard does not have a women’s center, which Lewis says is because College space should not be used to serve just one particular group of students.

Columbia, Princeton and Dartmouth, however, all have centers either for women’s issues or specifically for sexual assault prevention.

After a student-led campaign in 2000, Columbia established the Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Education, which houses the disciplinary panel that deals with sexual assault, provides resources for victims and offers preventive education.

“We have a better chance of creating a safe space for victims of sexual assault,” says Byrd, the office’s director.

Dartmouth boasts the Sexual Abuse and Awareness Program (SAAP), which includes support groups and educational presentations, as part of a women’s resource center.

And at Princeton, Thema Bryant, coordinator of the SHARE office, is charged with coordinating a number of sexual assault prevention programs, including a first-year orientation play about sexual assault, counseling and advocating for victims throughout the disciplinary process.

SHARE also offers medical treatment for injuries resulting from sexual assault and provides a psychotherapy group for sexual assault survivors. A representative from SHARE accompanies victims to the dean’s office to file complaints.

Bryant says she wants to make sure she is a highly visible presence so that students feel more comfortable coming forward to seek help.

But Avery dismisses the idea that Harvard needs one person to be in charge of campus resources.

“There’s no one person labelled the sexual assault guru,” Avery says.

—Staff writer Anne K. Kofol can be reached at