A Step Forward Against Sexual Assault

The Pfister committee wields potential

Last week, The Crimson reported that a committee made up of graduate students, undergraduates, and professors had been created to review the University’s Title IX policies and to recommend potential changes. The committee—whose exact mandate remains unclear—is chaired by former interim Dean of the College Donald H. Pfister.

Harvard announced its first University-wide sexual assault policies in July 2014 when both Harvard College and Harvard Law School were under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for repeatedly mishandling sexual assault cases. Harvard’s subsequent reforms were then hailed as a step in the right direction on an urgent and previously under-discussed issue. However, it soon became clear that the new policies had been assembled too hastily: For example, not a single Law School professor was consulted in their drafting.

The results of this failure of consultation were clear. Twenty-eight Harvard Law School professors took to the pages of The Boston Globe to argue that the University’s policies, designed with the intent of meeting the Title IX requirements, would do “more harm than good.” As one signatory of the Globe statement put it, under the new policies there would be “no separation of the judge, the prosecutor, and the investigator.” Soon, a Law School committee had adopted new procedures for sexual assault cases that corrected many deficiencies in the University’s initial reforms.

We agreed with the Law School professors that the University’s new policies, although well intentioned, did not provide for sufficiently impartial investigations that would protect both accuser and accused. We hope now that Harvard can reform its Title IX policies once again, this time bringing the Law School professors’ unique perspectives to bear.

We are encouraged by the sense that Harvard could be moving in the right direction on sexual assault by tailoring the University-wide policies to more closely resemble the Law School’s. The fact that this review committee is made up of people from across the University's schools and even includes a Law School professor who signed the Globe op-ed is a promising sign.

We also hope that the committee will take this opportunity to formalize policy changes that were adopted last October when a ten-page “Frequently Asked Questions” document was posted to the University Title IX Office's website. While many of the clarifications outlined in the FAQ were positive, they should be incorporated into the official sexual assault policy in a manner that is transparent, timely, and mindful of the gravity of the issue.

Finally, the committee should recognize that it is time for Harvard to join the more than 1,400 other institutions of higher education that use the affirmative consent standard in their sexual assault policies. We have spoken out strongly in support of such a standard, and continue to believe that it is the best standard for Harvard to adopt.

While sexual assault is not an issue conducive to rapid action, the committee should act expeditiously to standardize policy across the University’s schools, bringing it closer to the standards established by the Law School. If the committee is able to spur this change, as well as recommend the institution of the affirmative consent standard, then the its work will be an unqualified success.

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