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As you pick up your tickets and pack your bags for this year’s Harvard-Yale game, keep in mind that our rival school may have a losing football team, but in terms of bringing its school accountable to gender equality, its students are doing a really admirable job.
Last March, a group of 16 students and alumni filed a Title IX complaint to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, stating that Yale failed to eliminate “hostile environment” for female students. Much of the complaint centered on the university’s response to incidents of sexual and verbal assault. Yale, they claimed, has not been adequately responding to large-scale misogynistic verbal acts against women—like when a fraternity demonstrated in front of the Women’s Center with posters saying “We Love Yale Sluts” or a group of pledges paraded through the school shouting “No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!”
They also asserted that the University was not providing an adequate response to students who had been harassed and assaulted. According to the New York Times, one incident in the complaint involves a student who was discouraged from talking to the police after she brought her case to the Sexual Harassment Grievance Board. “I know far too many stories about women who have been raped or harassed on this campus and no action has been taken,” Alexandra Brodsky, Yale ’12 and one of the signatories on the complaint, told me on the phone. The OCR is currently investigating the complaint.
How has this been received? For one, the complaint and its investigation has brought to the open subjects of sex, sexism and sexual assault—now consistently talked about on campus. “The existence of the conversation is a positive thing,” Brodsky said. In these conversations, “The term feminism is wielded often by name,” Sam Huber, an editor at Yale’s feminist magazine Broad Recognition, told me. “It’s the reverse of the national trend—‘is feminism dead?’—as it is portrayed in any national newspaper.”
There have been a few concrete changes as well. Among them, the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, designed to address allegations of sexual misconduct of every kind, began operating in July, according to Yale representative Thomas Conroy.
And the University itself has examined its own position towards women: Last week Yale released its own findings on the University’s sexual climate. The report—which you can read entirely online—contains several good suggestions, such as making clearer the process by which sexual assault is treated. But the report also puts some of the cause of sexual assault on campus down to the sexual climate to begin with, often appearing to conflate a “hook-up culture” with a sexual environment that is inherently hostile. “Anyone, of course, can agree or disagree with the committee's observations and conclusions, or offer their own ideas as to the causes of sexual misconduct,” Conroy wrote to me in an email.
The signatories of the complaint—who have devoted time and energy into holding their school accountable for its actions and who have been willing to speak publically about what they perceive to be an injustice on campus—deserve our full support. Theirs is an admirable model of feminist activity on campus—one that is willing to stand up for equality in all spheres of life and even in the face of potential backlash.
A few notes on Title IX: Yale students are hardly the only group to have filed a complaint to the Department of Education. Last year, complaints were filed against Princeton, University of Virginia and Duke (where there were at least three cases), all around the issues of colleges’ responses to sexual harassment and assault. There’s even been a complaint filed against Harvard Law School, citing HLS’s drawn-out process to accusations of assault as a violation of Title IX. In April, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a strict set of guidelines about how universities should deal with assault on campus and clarifying the standards set by Title IX.
These claims are important: Title IX is a powerful tool for holding schools accountable to the law, and one that all students should fully understand. The educational amendment of 1972 prohibits “discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” At Harvard in 2002, a complaint filed by lawyer and New England Law School Professor Wendy J. Murphy resulted in the end of a policy that required “corroborating evidence” before the Ad Board would investigate any assault dispute. Here, the OCR did not find Harvard to be in violation with Title IX, but the University had begun revising its policy while the investigation was underway.
As we consider what kind of institution we want our school to be, it is worth considering how existing laws already provide checks to a University’s action. In this, the Yale students who have stood up for gender equality are a good example to follow.
Madeleine M. Schwartz ’12 is a history and classics concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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