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.