Although Harvard’s new sexual assault policy lacks an explicit affirmative consent clause, Mia Karvonides, the University’s Title IX officer, argued Tuesday that Harvard’s definition of sexual harassment is broad enough to encompass the cases covered by affirmative consent policies at other schools and adequately protect victims.
Speaking to a crowd of roughly 90 administrators, staff members, and students at the first of several open meetings about the new policy, Karvonides took questions and addressed the concerns of advocates who have called for the University to define consent as an affirmative agreement. Under such a standard, both partners would need to actively communicate a willingness to participate in sexual activity.
Harvard’s new University-wide policy and procedures, which took effect at the start of the term and established a new office to investigate allegations of sexual harassment, do not explicitly define consent. Instead, the policy describes sexual harassment, which includes sexual assault, as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” That wording has drawn criticism from some student leaders.
Multiple questions from audience members on Tuesday addressed affirmative consent, and after the meeting, Emily M. Fox-Penner ’17, an organizer for the advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better, said the “unwelcome” definition is ambiguous and “doesn’t achieve the clarity that affirmative consent policies” should.
Still, Karvonides said that under Harvard’s sexual harassment definition, based in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ past interpretations of Title IX, “the absence of a ‘no’ does not mean a ‘yes.’”
“Our language—it’s a little bit more complex, it’s a little bit more nuanced, but it gets us to the same place, and it brings us further,” said Karvonides, responding to an undergraduate’s concerns about the “unwelcome conduct” phrasing. “We’ve covered all of that with what we have here.”
She added that the policy, while generally based in the anti sex discrimination law Title IX, goes further than federal law requires because it covers harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity as well.
Other questions at the open meeting focused on how the accused, if determined to have violated the policy, will be disciplined. Under the revised procedures, the newly-created Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution—which administrators are calling the ODR—will determine if the policy was violated. Previously, administrators at individual schools carried out their own investigations. Under the new system, individual schools will still hand down sanctions through their own disciplinary processes, a fact that prompted concern from several people at the meeting.
Karvonides said the ODR will not prescribe a recommended set of disciplinary sanctions to the different schools, leading some to question how consistent punishments will be across the University.
Undergraduate Council President Gus A. Mayopoulos ’15 spoke up at the meeting to raise a perennial concern of student leaders. Mayopoulos complained that students were not adequately included in the policymaking process and expressed frustration with how Tuesday’s event was publicized.
Undergraduates received word of the meeting through emails from various College administrators on Tuesday, and Mayopoulos said he did not learn the meeting time until that morning.
“No student I spoke to today was aware that the meeting was happening before these emails were sent,” Mayopoulos said after the event. Pointing to the many administrators and faculty members present at the meeting, he added, “clearly, they were aware of it, while most students were not.”
The new policy comes into effect roughly a year and a half after Karvonides joined Harvard’s administration in March 2013. In May of that year, she convened a working group to examine the University’s existing sexual assault policies. No students sat on that group, whose work culminated in the policy and procedures that administrators unveiled this summer.
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