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Affirming the Ad Board? Not Just Yet

By Alisha C. Johnson and Alexandra Neuhaus-follini

Last Tuesday, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), under the Federal Department of Education, ruled that Harvard’s policy requiring “supporting information” before it will launch a full investigation in a sexual assault case does not violate Title IX. But OCR’s ruling does not in any way imply that Harvard’s policy is sufficient in dealing with the problem of sexual assault on campus. Harvard’s goal should be to create a model disciplinary procedure, not to be satisfied with one that is just barely legal.

As members of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV), we are encouraged that OCR’s investigation pushed Harvard to backtrack from and clarify its policy. We hope that Harvard’s successive revisions from requiring “sufficient independent corroboration” to “corroborating information” to “supporting information” represent more than semantic attempts at appeasement. Harvard’s note on the Ad Board’s website that “supporting information” can be nearly anything, including evidence of having told just one person about the incident, is another positive change. It is now crucial for Harvard to publicize this more lenient standard of “supporting information” and to standardize this new language in all of its printed and online material, so that victims who consider taking their cases to the Ad Board will not be dissuaded by what they perceive as an evidentiary threshold that they simply cannot meet.

While Harvard has taken positive steps away from a “corroboration” rule, OCR’s finding does not make the Ad Board a just process. The scope of the complaint to OCR was narrow, and there are many components of Harvard’s disciplinary process for sexual assault cases that the complaint did not directly challenge and that remain worrisome.

For instance, Harvard maintains that it will conduct a preliminary investigation in every case, but that only complainants who present “supporting information” will receive a full investigation. Harvard has not explained the differences between a preliminary investigation and a full investigation and must clarify this matter. Whatever the distinction turns out to be, we adamantly believe that any student who comes forward with a sexual assault complaint should be entitled to the most thorough investigation Harvard can provide. It is only through a careful and comprehensive investigation that evidence is most likely to be discovered.

This raises a second crucial point: if so much hinges on the investigation itself and the presence or lack of “supporting information,” it is essential that people carrying out the investigation are well-qualified. Unfortunately, under the current rules, the Ad Board members charged with this responsibility receive no training about how to investigate and deliberate on sexual assault cases. Thus, crucial evidence can be missed and irrelevant information may find its way into the hearing. Instead, everyone involved in the investigation and hearing phases of sexual assault cases—including Ad Board members—should receive process training as well as training on the issue of sexual violence. Moreover, Harvard should consider hiring a single professional “fact finder,” rather than relegating this responsibility to over-worked, inexperienced Senior Tutors and Assistant Deans. Such a move would have the additional benefit of centralizing investigative responsibility in a fully trained individual who could help bring all pertinent information to the attention of the Ad Board.

Furthermore, Senior Tutors and Assistant Deans should not serve, as they currently do, as first contacts in the disciplinary process. Their presence in this role represents a conflict of interest, since they also handle academic matters and are part of the residential community. These multiple roles may dissuade students from coming forward. This problem could be avoided if Harvard hired an advocate who could not only guide survivors through the Ad Board process and steer students towards appropriate counseling resources, but who was not a part of the college administration and thus could help students work through choices about legal and disciplinary options without any conflict of interest.

It is abominable that, in the context of these myriad failures in Harvard’s handling of sexual assault cases, the one change it chose to make did not address any of the actual problems and instead sought to avoid the situation altogether by making it more difficult for survivors to bring forward complaints.

Fortunately, Harvard is in a unique position to rectify these and other problems. In the spring of 2002, Harvard created the Committee to Address Sexual Assault at Harvard, commonly known as the Leaning Committee after its chair, Assistant Professor of Medicine Jennifer Leaning, in response to widespread student, community, and faculty anger about the new rule and Harvard’s unwillingness to deal with the problem of sexual violence on its campus. The committee plans to issue its recommendations to the faculty on April 16th, with release to the public shortly thereafter, and we look forward to real progress in Harvard’s sexual assault education programs and its resources for survivors. While Harvard’s disciplinary procedures regarding sexual assault complaints were notably and outrageously absent from its mandate, we believe that The Leaning Committee is nevertheless poised to make strong recommendations regarding discipline. It has been studying sexual violence at Harvard—including disciplinary concerns—for almost a year, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews with experts and with students. It is thus better qualified to comment on the Ad Board than the relatively unknown committee that originally recommended the corroboration rule without soliciting any input from the student body and without consulting with experts. As of yet, we know of no plans to allow a comprehensive, transparent review of Harvard’s disciplinary policy, and it therefore falls to the Leaning Committee to ensure that Harvard will grant every victim of sexual assault who comes forward a full investigation and hearing, even if the Ad Board was not originally part of its purview. Furthermore, the committee’s other recommendations should overhaul and ameliorate the rest of the investigation and hearing processes, and recommend a rigorous review by experts.

Traditionally, institutions like universities are slow to change, particularly when the change required is one of culture, not just rules. Harvard must work to create an environment where sexual violence is absolutely unacceptable and survivors feel confident in the justness of the system that will be hearing their cases. CASV has strenuously pursued this goal for the five years since its founding, and we will continue to press for change until we are confident that Harvard is dedicated to maintaining the safety of all its students.

Alisha C. Johnson ’04 is a sociology concentrator in Cabot House. She is a board member of CASV. Alexandra Neuhaus-Follini ’04 is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Mather House. A past board member of CASV, she is currently on leave.

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