Sexual Assault at Harvard

Mandi Nyambi

The Untold Story of Sexual Assault at Harvard

“I want to know what happened in that room when they were making a decision that changed my entire life.”

Julie, an undergraduate, says she will never understand why the Administrative Board decided in its closed deliberations in the Forum Room on the third floor of Lamont Library to allow the student who sexually assaulted her to remain on campus.

Julie, who has been granted anonymity by The Crimson because she fears retaliation from her perpetrator, initially felt optimistic about the College’s response to her sexual assault. After reporting the rape, Julie felt encouraged by the responses of Harvard University Police Department and the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. Assured that there was significant evidence to build a case against the perpetrator, Julie took her case to the Ad Board.

In light of this, she said, the Ad Board’s ultimate decision not to require the perpetrator to withdraw was particularly disheartening.

Paola, another College student who was sexually assaulted on campus, also found OSAPR to be a helpful resource. Yet she expresses deep disappointment with the way that administrators respond to students coming forward with experiences of sexual assault. “They question the event so much and ask if you were in the wrong so many times that, after a while, one begins questioning if it even happened,” she writes in an email to The Crimson. Paola, who has been granted anonymity by The Crimson to protect her privacy, decided not to pursue her case with the Ad Board in part because she knew the perpetrator.

For a growing number of students on campus, stories like Julie’s and Paola’s highlight what they describe as a disparity between Harvard’s many resources for the victims of sexual assault and the policies that govern the ways in which incidents of sexual assault are investigated and adjudicated. These critics, who include sexual assault survivors and campus activists, say that the Ad Board’s written policy language is not favorable to victims of sexual assault, and that the Ad Board’s lack of transparency about its processes intimidates students who bring their cases before the Board.

Harvard is currently conducting an ongoing review of its sexual assault policies across its various schools and has recently hired its first ever University-wide Title IX coordinator, who begins work this month. Still, some students feel that these efforts are not enough. They say that changes in the way administrators handle cases of sexual assault at the College level are progressing too slowly, and are not sufficiently responsive to student concerns.

It Happens Here

Several nights a month, Julia F.P. Ostmann ’15 staffs an anonymous desk in Lowell or stays by the phone from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.. Ostmann is a Response Peer Counselor, and she spends her late nights waiting for fellow students to contact her with their concerns about relationship problems, intimate partner violence, harassment, and sexual assault.

Despite increasing national and campus conversation about sexual assault, Ostmann says there remains the perception among some students that sexual violence is not a problem on Harvard’s campus.

“There’s this rhetoric that, ‘We’re the best and the brightest. How could someone here do this to another human being?’” says Ostmann, who is a Crimson magazine comper. Yet, she continues, sexual assault “is one of the major issues that we handle at Response.”

In 2011 alone, 26 Harvard students reported a rape or indecent assault to HUPD, OSAPR, or Harvard University Health Services, according to statistics published under the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to disclose information about crime on their campuses. And 85 to 95 students—60 to 70 percent of them undergraduates, the rest graduate students—worked with OSAPR to confidentially discuss experiences of sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment and stalking to dating violence and rape, according to Sarah Rankin, the director of OSAPR.

Harvard is not alone. According to a report released by the National Institute of Justice in 2011, between 20 and 25 percent of women, and approximately 6.1 percent of men are victims of an attempted or completed sexual assault while they are in college.

Members of Harvard’s prevention community say that, even with current discussions about sexual assault, there remains a persistent attitude that rape doesn’t—and can’t—occur at Harvard.

From 2005 to 2010, eight cases of sexual misconduct went in front of the Ad Board. As a result of these investigations, three perpetrators were required to withdraw from the College, meaning they were asked to leave the College for a period of at least six months. The Handbook of Students stipulates that “a student who commits rape, sexual assault, or other sexual misconduct is subject to severe penalties.” However, no students received a “recommendation to dismiss,” the Ad Board term for permanent expulsion, for sexual misconduct during this period.

“In the last few months, there’s been a lot of talk about sexual assault on campus, both in publications and in referendums. But a lot of people still don’t understand the extent or severity of exactly what’s going on on campus,” says Jonathan K. Stevens ’14, a member of the Consent Assault Awareness & Relationship Educators (CAARE), an OSAPR-sponsored student group that that works to educate Harvard students about domestic and sexual violence. “Nothing in the Harvard selection process selects out the kind of issues that we have to deal with when we talk about sexual assault,” Stevens says.

Campaigning for Change

The referendum of which Stevens speaks, a piece of student legislation passed in November, directly challenges the College’s current sexual assault policies. The vote on the issue was initiated by Our Harvard Can Do Better, a campus group that advocates for reform of the College’s policies and practices regarding sexual assault.

This fall, 3,066 undergraduates—85 percent of those who voted in the Undergraduate Council election—voted to approve the referendum asking Harvard to re-examine its policies related to sexual violence. In December, the Undergraduate Council officially endorsed Our Harvard Can Do Better’s platform.

According to Kate Sim ’14, a founder of Our Harvard Can Do Better, part of the campaign’s mission is to bridge the gap between policy and practice in terms of administrative response to sexual assault at the College.

“Harvard is one of the few colleges with a center like OSAPR,” Sim says. “Most colleges don’t even have that, so I’m grateful that we have that.” But this, she continued, is not adequate. “Having a little bit better system doesn’t mean you have the best system.”

Particularly, she says, this discrepancy applies when it comes to the College’s hesitance in adopting an official standard of affirmative consent. Harvard’s current policy defines rape as “any act of sexual intercourse that takes place against a person’s will or that is accompanied by physical coercion or the threat of bodily injury,” stating that “unwillingness may be expressed verbally or physically.” In contrast, an affirmative consent policy defines sexual assault as occurring in the absence of enthusiastic verbally or physically expressed consent.

A number of colleges and universities throughout the country, including the University of Iowa and Antioch College, have official policies of affirmative consent.

In addition, the campaign’s platform criticizes the current standard of evidence required by the Ad Board, which mandates that Board members must be “sufficiently persuaded” that an incident took place in reaching a verdict about sexual assault or any other case. Many believe this standard of evidence to be unclear and, perhaps, to place the burden of proof disproportionately on the victim.

Instead, many suggest the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which requires simply that an incident is more likely than not to have occurred.

National discussion about the “preponderance of the evidence” standard came to the fore after the Office for Civil Rights released a “Dear Colleague” letter delineating Title IX expectations for university response to gender discrimination, particularly regarding sexual assault. The letter suggested that colleges and universities adopt the “preponderance of the evidence” standard.

In June 2012, in response to the Office of Civil Rights investigation following a Title IX suit, Yale changed its policies to reflect the “preponderance of the evidence” standard. This legal pressure came in the wake of an incident on Yale’s campus in which fraternity brothers chanted “No means yes! Yes means anal!” outside of a dormitory during an initiation event the previous fall.

Yale’s decision leaves Harvard and Princeton as the only two Ivy League schools that have not adopted this standard.

For Julie, the wordings of policies are more than just semantics: They have a real impact on how cases like hers are decided by the Ad Board.

Julie felt that there was a lack of clarity in what the “sufficiently persuaded” standard meant. “I thought that they were ‘sufficiently persuaded,’” Julie says. From her perspective, it seemed, “Everybody...was not just sufficiently persuaded, but convinced.”

Julie says she believes the results of her case represented a fear of action on the part of the institution.“I think it’s just that they’re scared. I really do think that they are afraid that, if they make the wrong decision...they’re going to get all this legal action,” she says.

Liz Canner, a filmmaker currently documenting the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, also points to fear of legal action as a potential reason why universities in general are hesitant to punish perpetrators.

“There have been lawsuits against schools around sexual assault and how it’s handled, not so much from the victim…but it tends to be that it’s the perpetrators and the perpetrators’ family that take out law suits against the school,” she says.

This threat of legal action, says Canner, means that university decisions often favor assailants over victims. “A lot of universities are risk-averse, and because it’s perpetrators who are suing, in some ways things are leaning towards the perpetrators,” she says.

Working Towards Reform

After the results of this fall’s referendum indicated widespread community support for the changes proposed by Our Harvard Can Do Better, the Office of Student Life established a Sexual Assault Resources Student Working Group at the behest of Dean of Harvard College Evelynn M. Hammonds. But, according to Emelyn dela Pena, Assistant Dean of Harvard College for Student Life and the College’s Title IX coordinator, this working group is not a direct result of the referendum.

“What I think we need to know is whether or not students feel that the kind of services they get from OSAPR and the Office of Student Life are sufficient or really address the concerns that students have when sexual assault happens,” says Hammonds of her reason for calling the working group.

The group consists of students representing a variety of organizations on campus, including Our Harvard Can Do Better, the Undergraduate Council, the University’s new Office of BGLTQ Student Life, fraternities, sororities, and male and female final clubs. Dean Hammonds does not sit on the committee.

According to dela Pena, policy change is outside of the limits of the committee established by Hammonds.

“The policy in place is faculty legislation. The Dean of the College could not alone make changes to the policy; all changes to faculty rules must be voted by the faculty, which would first require a much broader conversation that would certainly involve the new Title IX coordinator and many others," dela Pena writes in an email.

Jeff Neal, spokesperson for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, writes in an email that policy change is an extensive process. “Changing Harvard’s policies around sexual assault would require a broad conversation that would certainly involve the new Title IX coordinator and many others at the College, FAS and the University,” he writes. With possible new federal legislation on the horizon and Title IX discussions between the University and the Office of Civil Rights ongoing, he writes, “I think we don’t know yet what changes might occur in the future.”

Neal writes that the goal of the working group is “to assess the resources that are already available, how we communicate them to students and what additional resources or communications might be needed going forward.” Right now, he adds, It is not clear that students know what resources are available to them or how to access them.”

For Sim, however, a focus on resources, while important in highlighting potential inadequacies, is not enough. “If this group is indeed strictly [focused] on the resources, then we haven’t sufficiently addressed the problem,” she says.

Tara Raghuveer ’14, Undergraduate Council president, says that students are concerned with policy. “We’ve heard from multiple people that there needs to be a discussion of policy in this working group, and thus far it’s only been about resources, and the agenda hasn’t been set by the students involved at all,” she says.

According to dela Pena, it is the responsibility of student representatives to reach out to their communities to solicit concerns. “We have not dictated how this needs to happen,” writes dela Pena. “With that said, members of these organizations may also independently contact their representatives to forward ideas or concerns to the Working Group.”

Yet, says Raghuveer, the mission of the working group limits the scope of what actions students may request. “I strongly believe that if students feel that they need to be talking about policy and the potential for policy reform, that discussion needs to be engaged, and we will definitely be working towards that in the future,” she says.

The students in the working group contacted for this article all expressed that they had been forbidden from discussing certain aspects of the working group.

According to dela Pena, this policy is in place “in order to protect the integrity of the working group process.”

But for Sean M. Khosravi ’13, a student member of the Sexual Assault Resources Student Working Group representing campus fraternities, this requirement for confidentiality is unsettling. “People were like, ‘We can’t tell anyone? This is not at all what we asked for.’”

Khosravi worries that the current working group is structured to appease student concern, rather than address it. “I had a lot of high hopes,” Khosravi says of his thoughts going into the working group. “And then I show up to the meeting and I was like, ‘wow, I’m just a show right now, the administration is trying to use me as a show.’”

According to Raghuveer, student action to call for specific policy reform is complicated by administrative response. “Our actions are limited by the fact that Dean Hammonds immediately responded with this working group,” she says.

Khosravi feels that this group’s approach feeds into a pattern of inattention towards this issue on campus. When it comes to sexual assault, he says, “I think the term that would most describe the administration is negligent.” Surrounding the issue of sexual assault on campus, he claims that “the administration obviously wants to keep it quiet.”

The Politics of Prevention

While perpetrators and victims of sexual assault can be of any gender, the vast majority—nine out of every 10, according to anti-sexual violence organization Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network—of rapes that occur in the United States involve a female victim and a male perpetrator.

These statistics signify that conversations about sexual assault necessarily entail consideration of gender dynamics.

Schuyler H. Daum ’12, who was a member of the OSAPR Student Alliance, now CAARE, while she was a student, found herself drawn to the group initially because of her frustration with gender issues on campus.

“One of the things that I found especially jarring at Harvard was the dichotomy between the capability and the independence of a lot of my friends, but then this sort of disconnect between advocating for yourself in the classroom and advocating for yourself in relationships,” Daum says.

While Harvard women are taught to be aggressive in the workplace or the classroom, she suggests, in many cases they are hesitant to assert clearly what they want in social situations. “It’s something that women are taught not to do because we want people to like us,” Daum says.

For Daum, this fear of advocating for oneself, coupled with the fact that sexual interactions on campus often involve alcohol, creates blurred lines of communication even in consensual relationships. “As a result, that hides or camouflages the behavior of genuinely predatory people,” she says.

Daum’s critique evokes a broader discussion about the connection between sexual assault and male-dominated social spaces.

Referencing sociological research, Canner says, “There’s a direct correlation between competitive all-male institutions—sports teams, frats, that kind of thing—and sexual assault.” In the course of making her film, Canner spent a semester documenting a course at Dartmouth examining campus norms surrounding sexual violence.

“Men in those kinds of organizations are more likely to engage in these kinds of behaviors,” Canner claims. “That’s because these kinds of institutions support a certain kind of misogynistic behavior.”

These dynamics, says Canner, are apparent in social spaces on campus. “Looking at the spaces where social life is taking place, where the party is taking place,” she says. “How does space play into it, or control of social space? Are we getting free alcohol? What’s the unspoken economic agreement when we’re getting free alcohol and party spaces?”

Whether fair or not, at Harvard, the discussion about male-dominated party spaces tends to focus on men’s final clubs, unrecognized social groups with off-campus real estate known for hosting parties.

“My attack happened in a final club,” writes Paola, the student who was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance whom she describes as “just disgustingly drunk” at the time. “I spoke to friends and I found out he had attacked or been a little too forward with other women as well.”

Jack J. Holuba ’13, a final club member and a member of Harvard Men Against Rape, acknowledges the potential dangers—and the resulting necessity for intervention—of male-dominated party spaces.

“Most assaults are hetero, male with female, usually in a male-dominated space, frats, whatever it may be,” Holuba says. “So it is important to keep everyone, I don’t want to say on their toes, but just aware of what’s important in our social space.”

Prevention groups on campus are attempting to address the safety risks that can result from these kinds of atmospheres. On an invitation basis, OSAPR conducts trainings with social groups—both recognized and unrecognized, including fraternities and final clubs—regarding sexual assault prevention.

To Khosravi and other men at HMAR, the mission of male-targeted prevention is to reach out to those men who are not perpetrators, but who may be complacent.

“19 out of 20 men will never commit an assault,” he says. “It’s only five percent of men who are doing these things. The vast majority of men are not. For those of us who are not, it’s not enough to say we’re not doing anything.”

Kevin Murt ’14, a fellow HMAR member, agreed. “Silence is not appropriate,” he says. “A community that is silent is allowing or enabling something as awful as this to persist.”

Dela Pena emphasizes the necessity of cultural change, pointing out the pitfalls of a student approach that just focuses on policy. “I know that there are people on this campus who are hungry for cultural change, a cultural shift in the way we talk about sexual assault,” she says. “And cultural change happens through so many different layers. Just changing the policy—that’s not going to bring about cultural change. That needs to come from the ground up.”

But many critics say cultural change is not enough to create a safe campus.

Moving Forward

Throughout the Ad Board process, Julie says she felt intimidated by the Board’s staunch confidentiality policy.

These confidentiality rules, stated on the Ad Board’s website, require students “to refrain from discussing the case or any of its details with anyone other than those who have a need to know.” In addition, the rules state that “all confidentiality obligations remain in full force even after the conclusion of any case.”

For Julie, who felt that the policy had not been made clear to her, confidentiality restrictions led to a feeling of isolation. “I didn’t know what to tell my friends, I didn’t know what to tell anybody,” she says. “So one of the things they could do is make it even clearer—what does it mean, somebody who ‘needs to know’?”

“If I say the wrong thing, someone could discipline me for that,” she says. “That doesn’t seem right.” She continued, “I felt very trapped during the whole Ad Board process.”

Even after the case, Julie says, the verdict left her feeling threatened. “What I was concerned about, what I wanted, was to have him not be here,” Julie says about her aims in the Ad Board case. “I just wanted to feel safe.”

Victims of sexual assault must adjust their own schedules or change their housing if the perpetrator is allowed to remain on campus, and not the other way around, she says—one of the many reasons why she believes that Harvard should be more willing to punish students accused of sexual assault.

“If they’re not kicked out, they’re given the same rights as you,” Julie says. “And that was really shocking.”

According to Diane L. Rosenfeld, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, the implications of policies like these extend beyond the rulebook and into students’ daily lives.

“If women on campus know that a rape survivor has been silenced somehow by the administration or by the school or by just not having a process that has given her any kind of relief, then it’s entirely possible that they are not enjoying equal access to educational opportunities because they know that they too could be victimized with no recourse as well,” Rosenfeld says.

For Paola, cultural change among the student body does not necessarily equal institutional support.

In light of recent attention surrounding the issue of sexual assault, Paola writes, “Students are talking about it more and being increasingly sensitive about the subject. People are realizing that it happens a lot on campus and they are fighting more visibly to end our rape culture. They are more open to conversations on the matter and are not afraid to stand up for other students who have suffered abuse. I feel in a more supportive atmosphere now than I did my freshman year.”

In contrast, she writes that she believes the administration “is still a bit more antiquated and hostile.”

Even as students advocate for what is, to many, much-needed culture shift, frustrations remain for those who have already been the victim of a sexual assault.

The worst frustration among these, according to Julie, is the knowledge that she is not the only person on campus to have an experience of this kind. “What hurts me the most is to find out that there are so many cases like mine here.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: March 7, 2013

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the class year of Jack J. Holuba ’13.

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