Plague on Our House
Harvard's handling of sexual assault needs dire reform
Last week, The Crimson published a troubling account of sexual assault on Harvard’s campus. The report documented that, despite resources available to sexual assault survivors like the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, the Administrative Board charged with discipline of the perpetrators remains committed to cryptic proceedings and vague standards of evidence that seem to benefit offenders over survivors.
The current unclear standard of evidence mandates that members of the Ad Board must be “sufficiently persuaded” of the occurrence of a sexual assault in order to take administrative action, rather than the “preponderance of the evidence” standard urged by the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education and already employed at all other Ivy League universities except Princeton.
We strongly encourage Harvard to adopt the preponderance of the evidence standard while revising its policies on sexual assault in the wake of the Undergraduate Council referendum that received 85 percent of the vote in favor of a reexamination of University sexual violence policies. A sluggish adoption of this standard leaves the University open to a Title IX suit similar to the lawsuit filed at Yale that prodded the institution to update its standard of evidence last year.
Diane L. Rosenfeld, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, notes that, “The preponderance of the evidence standard is the correct standard in discrimination cases. Just because it’s sex discrimination should not make it a higher standard…in the educational setting, the school is responsible for protecting the civil rights of the students.”
Harvard would also do well to adopt a standard of affirmative consent, where clear verbal or physical consent must be sought before sexual activity. Such a standard would place impetus on initiators of sexual activity to obtain consent rather than on victims to express non-consent. Harvard’s official adoption of affirmative consent, already employed at colleges including the University of Iowa and Antioch College, would encourage other colleges and universities to do the same.
In 2010 alone, 36 Harvard students reported sexual assault to the Harvard University Police Department, but in the entire five-year period from 2005 to 2010, only eight cases of sexual misconduct were ever brought before the Ad Board. Of the eight cases, three resulted in students required to withdraw for at least one semester, and remarkably, no student was expelled. If there is any crime deserving of permanent expulsion from the University, it is rape proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but the Ad Board’s record from 2005 to 2010 suggests an undue priority given to the interests of sexual assailants. Moreover, false reports of sexual assault are statistically extremely rare, giving the Ad Board all the more reason to exercise due diligence in adjudicating students accused of assault.
Seeing their assailants on campus, survivors of sexual assault report dismay at these perceived lack of consequences delivered by the Ad Board to perpetrators. An overhaul is needed to remedy the clumsiness and lack of transparency in the Ad Board’s proceedings. Moving from a needlessly vague “sufficiently persuaded” barometer to the less capricious and more definite preponderance of evidence standard is an important step, as is the use of clearer policies and more severe punishments.
Harvard simply owes its students better.