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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
“The motion was approved in a manner that was for me totally unexpected and that was couched in language that was far from clear,” said Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Bradley S. Epps. “I remember saying to a colleague ‘What just happened?’”
This was the picture of last May’s meeting of the Harvard Faculty: professors rushed in to vote on a measure that was billed as a “minor change to the Handbook”—a policy that later sparked a 200-student rally, an outcry from Faculty members, a federal investigation on civil rights grounds, and calls for reform of the entire campus judicial system. That “minor” change was the now-infamous “corroboration rule,” which allowed the University to require any student bringing a complaint of sexual assault before the College’s Ad Board to provide “independent corroborating evidence” before a full investigation could be launched.
This year, a very different picture has emerged for the Faculty’s May agenda. At the next meeting on May 6, the report of the Committee to Address Sexual Assault at Harvard (CASAH) will present its reccommendations to create a new Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR) and to vastly expand training and education; at the next meeting, they will consider a new change in the Handbook that would repeal last May’s corroboration rule.
Both the CASAH report and the repeal of the corroboration rule should be approved, but in order for these measures to be implemented effectively, the Faculty cannot afford to rubber-stamp these measures without critical debate. The lessons of last year’s fiasco cannot be forgotten.
As it considers repeal of the “corroboration rule,” the Faculty must ensure that the new standard, which requires students to provide investigators “as much information as possible,” is clearly delineated. Confusion has already emerged because the website version of the Handbook for Students was changed—over last fall, as administrators claim—and an update was never sent in hard copy to students.
The Faculty legislation that would repeal of the corroboration rule also mentions that students appealing to the Ad Board should contact the College’s “Sexual Harassment Hearing Officer.” But it is unclear which official will fill that role. It could be a staff member in OSAPR, or it could remain the responsibility of the College’s Assistant Dean for Coeducation (who, incidentally, does not have any sexual assault training) or it could even be the CASAH-recommended “Single Fact Finder.” The Faculty must take a critical eye to these potentially confusing aspects of the proposal before it, and press for clarity on behalf of the student body.
The University’s response to sexual assault is becoming even more critical, especially with the mounting pressure that off-campus rape crisis centers are enduring at the hands of state budget-slashers. Massachusetts’ state leaders have found it acceptable to leave rape victims without the support they deserve. By giving due consideration to the measures proposed by CASAH and giving close scrutiny to the corroboration rule repeal, Harvard can become a better model of how to deal with sexual assault, and support student’s safety.
Dissent: Let the Courts Decide
In an ideal world, rape victims unwilling to go to the criminal courts would be able to find justice at Harvard. But by calling for a Harvard judicial board to try rape cases without “corroborating evidence,” the Staff expects College administrators to rely on “he said, she said” testimony when making decisions that will have long-lasting personal consequences for the students involved. With neither predetermined sentencing guidelines nor strict standards for evidence, Harvard judicial boards are clearly unequipped to investigate rape allegations fairly. The corroborating evidence standard was, at the very least, an acknowledgement of the college’s ineffectiveness as a proper recourse for rape victims.
Instead, serious crimes like rape should be investigated in Massachusetts state court, where prosecutors have power to requisition evidence and subpoena witness testimony, and where all parties are guaranteed due process under the law. A state court, not Harvard, has the necessary means and enforcement power to ensure that all parties are treated fairly.
—Luke Smith ’04
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