Sexual Assault Referendum Makes UC Ballot

UPDATED: Nov. 4, 2012, at 3:17 p.m.

When students vote for Undergraduate Council president this fall, they can also cast a vote calling on Harvard to revise its policies for handling sexual assault.

Thanks to an online petition that garnered the 670 signatures required by the Council to create a ballot question, voters may indicate their approval of a long list of changes to Harvard’s practices.

The referendum calls for Harvard to endorse the concept of “affirmative consent” to sex, more clearly define “mental incapacitation” that renders a person unable to consent, adopt BGLTQ-inclusive language in its assault policies, and increase the transparency of the case review process.

Kate Sim ’14, who created the successful petition along with Pearl Bhatnagar ’14, described the referendum as “a signal of our agency as students in claiming our mental and physical safety on campus.”

Launched early Thursday morning, the petition garnered more than 300 undergraduate signatures in its first 12 hours online and achieved the 670-signature target Friday evening.

Bhatnagar said that the response indicates broad student interest in changing sexual assault policies, and UC Student Initiatives Committee Chair Nicholas W. Galat ’13 added that the upcoming vote will reinforce that.

“Taking this issue to a referendum will give the UC a more credible stance on what the students want and will allow us to directly say that we do speak for the students,” Galat said.

The last time the University made substantial changes to its sexual assault policies was in 2003. This summer, two stranger rapes—the first in 12 years—were reported at Harvard. And since Harvard announced its intention not to change its policies despite a federal investigation into sexual assault policy at Yale and Harvard Law School, and more recently a former Amherst College student made waves nationwide by publishing an essay on the school’s insensitive response to her rape, Bhatnagar said Harvard should be reconsidering its approach to handling assaults.

“In light of the recent reviews that our peer institutions have pursued, this is a chance for Harvard to improve upon the safety mechanisms that it already has in place for its students,” she said.

UC Rules Committee Chair Darragh Nolan ’15 said that students last petitioned for a UC ballot referendum in 2006, when undergraduates passed a referendum calling for the University to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from their 1990 level by 11 percent by 2020. This year, three questions have made it to the ballot through student—the sexual assault one, a call for Harvard to divest from fossil fuels, and a petition for the Harvard Management Company to take responsibility for the funds collected by the Fair Harvard Fund created last year.

Of the increase in ballot questions, Chloe S. Maxmin ’15, a member of Students for a Just and Stable Future who spearheaded the petition for the fossil fuels referendum, said, “It’s incredible to see how many students have gotten involved in the campaigns and how many students are really latching onto these movements…. This is a really powerful tool. It’s a way to show the administration that the students really care.” Maxmin is also a Crimson editorial editor.

Nolan foresees even more ballot questions in elections to come. “I imagine that there will probably be an increase in petitions as more and more students hear about it,” he said. “Even student activists who don’t normally care about the UC will have reason to log into the system and vote.”

Though there is currently little information in the UC constitution about how ballot questions are run, Nolan said that legislation is being created to streamline the process.

If the UC votes to pass the legislation, there will be two times during the school year when a referendum can be put forth to the student body: on the UC presidential ballot in the fall, and in a special referendum email sent to the student body following spring break. Twenty-five percent of the undergraduate population will have to vote for the referendum for the UC to officially endorse the petition’s stance on the issue.

“Kate and Pearl were already working on a campaign to bring this issue to the administration’s attention,” Dudley House representative Sahil A. Khatod ’14 said. “But they hadn’t been talking to the UC, so I told them that the UC would be the best place to push for a referendum.”

According to representatives, the petition coincides with recent initiatives that the Council has pursued. UC Student Life Committee Chair Michael C. George ’14 said that the Council has recently talked with the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response about improving safety on campus.

“Students told us that we need more blue lights, more bike racks in well-lit locations, and better lighting on the path back to the Quad at night,” said George, who is also a Crimson news editor. “We’re organizing a safety walk with OSAPR to investigate all these streets and places where students feel unsafe and do something about it.”

—Staff writer Michelle Denise L. Ferreol can be reached at mferreol@college.harvard.edu.

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