Reacting to an op-ed signed by more than a quarter of the Harvard Law School faculty that condemned the University's new sexual assault policy, University Title IX Officer Mia Karvonides on Monday defended the role she and her office play in the investigatory process.
Among other points, the open op-ed questioned the impartiality of the newly-created Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution (ODR) charged with investigating sexual misconduct cases and determining whether there was a violation of policy.
In an interview on Monday, Karvonides said that she disagrees with suggestions that ODR would not be impartial in handling sexual misconduct cases.
“I don’t know what we have put out, I don’t know what we have said to give anyone that impression,” Karvonides said. “I approach this work as neutral.”
She further emphasized that as the University continues its efforts to fill two ODR investigator positions, administrators have been searching for candidates that they have confidence will handle cases with impartiality.
Regardless of Karvonides’ assurances, Law School professors critical of the policy contend that the problem with the office is inherent and structural.
“Karvonides is under immense pressure to increase the number of complaints filed and the number of people held responsible. This is structural. She can be and is a professional and an expert, but she can’t undo that structure,” Law School professor Janet Halley said.
She said the neutrality of the office is lost because the Title IX officer holds roles that are traditionally separated in legal systems, including producing charges in some cases, investigating claims, adjudicating guilt, and hearing appeals.
Addressing that concern in part, Karvonides said on Monday that she has decided that appeals will be referred to a designee who will be separate from either the investigatory process or the ODR office, as allowed by the University policy. She added that the identity of that designee was “soon to come.”
“In my mind, we fail in our work under Title IX if we are viewed as being biased or even advocates, or in any way that this isn’t a fair process,” Karvonides said. “If we’re going to make progress, people need to understand, to have trust and have confidence that this is an unbiased process.”
DRAFTING A COMPLAINT
The op-ed raised an array of other criticisms against the University policy, including infringements on academic freedom, overstepping guidelines set by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and a skewed process in favor of complainants.
The op-ed garnered support from many of the biggest names among tenured and retired faculty at the Law School, including Martha A. Field ’65, Charles J. Ogletree, and Alan M. Dershowitz, who retired last year.
"There were just a huge number of people on the faculty who were concerned about the nature of the Harvard University policy,” Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet said.
The drafting of the op-ed was spearheaded by Law professors Bartholet and Halley, according to a signatory of the op-ed with direct knowledge of the situation.
“I did play a major role in the drafting process but it was definitely a group process with many people contributing ideas and language at many stages,” Bartholet said. “Drafting was a significantly group process with many of those signing actively involved in developing the language.”
The op-ed came out of discussions throughout the Law School in which professors expressed concern over the new policy and the example it set to other colleges and universities, Halley said.
In its aftermath, signatories say they have received largely positive feedback.
“My sense honestly is that the faculty by and large is proud that we are standing up on principle and perfectly clear that what is being demanded for us is poor and actually wrong,” Charles R. Nesson ’60, law school professor and one of the op-ed’s signatories, said.
Still, Nesson said that serious work remains to be done in order to create a better policy for the University.
“Harvard Law School has its back up against the wall. It has a response at the moment that doesn't offer anything better,” he said, referring to the op-ed. “The question is whether we can engage in a process that produces a substantive result that transform[s] Harvard Law School from being the bastion of gender discrimination that many think it has been and continued to be into a place that is known for having addressed the problem and transcended it.”
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