It's Time for a (Culture) Change

The issue of sexual violence at Harvard has been the subject of heated debate for over a decade. In 1990, a Date Rape Task Force, convened in response to student activism, proposed a “Policy Statement on Sexual Misconduct” that required affirmative consent (a spoken “Yes”) before sex. However, after review by the then-Dean of the College, L. Fred Jewett ’57, the statement was changed to require “expressed unwillingness” or an inability to give consent due to drugs or alcohol for an incident to fit the definition of rape, and appeared as the “Policy Statement on Sexual Assault, Rape and Other Sexual Misconduct” in the 1993-94 Student Handbook. Many of the Task Force’s other recommendations (including training on sexual assault for the Ad Board) were never implemented.

In 1998-99 the cases of two students charged with separate counts of rape once again highlighted the problem of sexual violence on campus. In response, students formed the Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV), and began lobbying for Harvard to improve its sexual assault education, support services and disciplinary procedures.

Most recently, there was the community uproar surrounding last April’s “sufficient independent corroboration” policy recommended by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Administrative Board (The Ellison Committee). The Committee drew fire from CASV and many other student groups for the secrecy with which it operated, and the hurried way the report was passed by the faculty. The corroboration rule itself was criticized as a 30-year step backwards. This new rule focused attention yet again on the issue of sexual violence at Harvard, and was an important factor in the creation of the Committee to Address Sexual Assault at Harvard (CASAH).

So this was the atmosphere in which we began our work with CASAH: large portions of the student body hostile and distrustful of Harvard’s willingness to change; a University with, at best, a spotty history on the issue of sexual violence; and an understanding that there was a lot to be done. Each month a two-inch thick binder arrived in the mail, filled with articles on sexual violence to be read in preparation for the Committee’s next meeting. We met with individual students, student groups, faculty, lawyers, administrators, mental health clinicians and more. It is safe to say we both learned an immense amount over these past nine months. So what do we have to show for it?

It is our hope that the proposed Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response will be a gigantic step forward for Harvard by providing a central location for coordination of services and evaluation. The University will also be sending a strong message, both within the community and nationally: sexual assault is a problem here (as it is on college campuses nationwide), and we take it seriously enough to put in the substantial amount of time, energy and money required to make a serious difference.

CASAH’s recommendations greatly expand the scope and duration of preventive education. Students will be expected to attend multiple education sessions both freshman and sophomore year, ranging from small group discussions to larger lectures, and will focus on questions of bystander intervention, sex positivity, communication, alcohol and consent. In short, the sessions will be more complex than simply declaring: “don’t rape” and “don’t get raped.” Students will be encouraged to be critical, making the education effective and engaging. Equally exciting is the new part-time position of a prevention specialist who will primarily focus on male members of social groups and athletic teams. Statistically speaking, these students fall into the “high-risk” category of potential perpetrators; consequently, they must work to overcome that unfortunate yet nationally deserved reputation.

Support services, too, will receive essential boosts in training, coordination, centralization and access. Most important, we suspect, will be the role of the new Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. This experienced and dedicated person will serve as a student’s advisor throughout the process of finding appropriate physical and mental healthcare, and exploring academic, residential and legal or other adjudication options. We hope that situating this position in its own office will eliminate many academic or institutional conflicts of interest. Also, the variety of entry points to the system available Sexual Assault Sexual Harassment (SASH) tutors, Senior Tutors, Response Peer Counselors, University Health Services (UHS), and others will have increased training to make their services more effective. We are quite encouraged by the changes UHS has already begun to implement, such as designating certain clinicians who specialize in treating survivors of sexual assault, and feel that these preliminary steps show great promise on their part.

The third piece of Harvard’s sexual assault policy, the College’s disciplinary procedures, was excluded from our Committee’s mandate. However, we tried to strengthen the existing system as best we could. Thus, process training on the adjudication of peer disputes for the full Ad Board (and sexual assault training for the resident deans in their capacity as support providers) will hopefully help this body become better equipped to adjudicate cases. Also, expanding the Single Fact Finder (SFF) system by hiring a professional investigator who will do a full investigation of every peer-to-peer dispute charge will hopefully help the Ad Board process become more streamlined and efficient. A well-trained SFF should also reduce the likelihood that crucial facts will be missed or misinterpreted.

Even given all of these positive changes, the report represents only a portion of what we wish we could have addressed. Students and faculty alike shared concerns with us that fell outside our Committee’s bounds, but should not be allowed to fall by the wayside. First and foremost were the many serious criticisms of the Ad Board. It is crucial that these be properly addressed in a full review of Harvard’s disciplinary procedures. Second, concerns surfaced about the status of women at Harvard, and the possible need for a Women’s Center (Harvard is the only Ivy League institution without one). Another common theme in our discussions was student dissatisfaction with the social life at Harvard. Students described a lack of social options, particularly ones that did not take place in male-controlled spaces like the final clubs. The creation of a Student Center could do much to alleviate this concern.

We must remember that despite countless hours of work, these recommendations first need to be accepted by Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, Provost Steven E. Hyman and the faculty, and then implemented in full, before we will see any real change. It will also be crucial to pursue rigorous evaluation of all parts of the new system in order to fix any problems that may arise.

Most important of all, the Harvard community itself must confront the issue of sexual violence on campus. We need to work towards becoming a community where rape is not tolerated. With the acceptance and implementation of the Leaning Committee’s recommendations, Harvard will effectively be saying that sexual assault is morally despicable and legally criminal behavior that is wholly unacceptable in our community. It is our obligation as community members to follow this lead.

Jared M. Slade ’03 is a government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Sarah B. Levit-Shore ’04 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. They are the student representatives on the Committee to Address Sexual Assault at Harvard.