When Students Party, College Calls Lawyers

In confronting alcohol and sexual assault, the College must weigh both student safety and its own liability

It’s been three years since 19-year-old Matthew Sunshine celebrated the end of exams in a Northwestern dorm room by pounding down 17 shots of vodka in about an hour. The next day, his parents received the worst phone call imaginable: Their son had died of alcohol poisoning.

Besides devastating the campus community, the tragic incident also put the university in the crosshairs of potential litigation—in part because Sunshine was on university property, consuming alcohol when he was two years below the legal drinking age.

This fall, Northwestern agreed to review their own alcohol policy and pay Sunshine’s family $2 million.

While universities like Harvard consider the effect that their policies will have on student safety and undergraduate life, there is another factor that is often outside the public eye except when tragedy strikes. When it crafts and enforces policies, the University must consider its legal liability in order to protect its billions of dollars in assets and prevent damage to its reputation. In recent years, Harvard has moved to modify its policies on alcohol and sexual assault to better ensure that its rules and procedures adhere to the ever-shifting legal climate.



In April, Vice President Joe Biden and the Office for Civil Rights published a new set of guidelines explaining what universities must do to keep their sexual assault and sexual harassment procedures in line with federal law.

The new guidelines—which clarify, among other issues, the standard of evidence required to begin investigations in cases of sexual assault—have pushed universities like Harvard to reevaluate their own policies.

“My thinking is that their sense is that campuses were in need of guidance,” Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Sarah Rankin said. “It was really to clarify the points that [the federal government] perceived schools were struggling to understand and meet.”

Harvard’s Office of General Counsel—which functions as a university-wide legal team—is currently examining each school’s policies and procedures to ensure that they are in line with federal law.

At Harvard, assaults and incidents of harassment by Harvard students that occurred off campus—for example, at final clubs or fraternities in the Square—are already considered to be within the College’s disciplinary purview, according to Associate Dean of the College John “Jay” L. Ellison. But the new guidelines mandate this practice.

“The new Title IX guidelines are much more aware of off-campus behaviors,” said Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law and policy. “I don’t think the schools have the same luxuries they had even two months ago.”

A Title IX investigation by the Office for Civil Rights that began this year against Yale University will likely attract scrutiny from its peer institutions and has the potential to further alter sexual assault and sexual harassment policies across the nation.

The complaint alleges that a number of public incidents and Yale University policies created a “hostile sexual environment.”

During one incident cited in the complaint, students chanted, “No means yes! Yes means anal!” on Yale’s Old Campus, according to the Yale Daily News. In another instance, student-athletes and fraternity members circulated a “Preseason Scouting Report” which ranked the sexual attractiveness of female undergraduates on Yale’s campus, providing the women’s names, hometowns, and residential colleges.

The complaint further asserts that Yale created an environment in which charges of sexual harassment and assault are not adequately investigated.