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Alumnae Speak Out on Sexual Assault Task Force

By Lisa E. Paige

The governing council of Harvard Women, an alumni shared interest group, which since our founding in 2013 has focused on how we might support the University in finding solutions to issues of concern to alumnae and women on campus, convened last Saturday. This previously planned meeting focused on the problem of on-campus violence against women and was designed to include undergraduate input on so-called rape culture.

What timing.

What we heard made us even more unsettled than had our reading of Crimson articles on the topic. In response to both these articles and the stories shared during the meeting, we identified multiple mutual grave concerns about the newly announced presidential task force on sexual misconduct.

Concerning leadership, Dr. Steven Hyman is a highly respected scientist with extraordinary credentials. His expertise as a neuroscientist and his experience as an administrator are relevant and valuable, and his sphere of influence is prodigious. As provost, he was among the Harvard leaders who established the Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, which speaks to his commitment to the issue.

However, the vast majority of victims of sexual misconduct are women. Furthermore, without devolving into reductive gender behavior stereotyping, women’s leadership may differ from men’s. Consider International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde’s statement in a 2013 interview in Harvard Business Review: “Studies show that certain characteristics are predominant in female leaders, like the ability to listen [and] the desire to form a consensus … which … is why women are good leaders in times of crisis.”

In a crisis defined by gender conflict, a male-female co-chairmanship would be a forward-thinking leadership model for the task force addressing it. The immediate appointment of a woman with an outstanding record in sexual violence prevention to aid Hyman would do much both to repair damaged confidence and to improve task force outcomes. Imagine a Lagarde-Clinton-esque high-five between female and male leaders on sexual assault prevention!

We are also troubled by the composition of the rest of the group. While there is representation from Harvard Business School, no Business School leaders in the organizational behavior unit are on the list. Faculty from the history and economics departments are included, but there is an absence of psychology department and women and gender studies program faculty. Strikingly, no one from the School of Public Health appears on the list. Additionally, no student advocate for improved prevention and services is included.

Perhaps the biggest affront of all is the lack of publicly represented survivors. We are in touch with a large number of alumnae who were victims, many of whom stand ready to serve on the task force as the public voice of survivors.

We applaud the trifold focus in the task force charge on prevention, after-care, and legal remedies, with particular emphasis on the first two. We are encouraged that despite the complexities inherent in the relationship between alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct, the task force will not shy away from examining it. With at least a 50 percent and some studies say closer to 90 percent coincidence of alcohol and sexual abuses, this quagmire is not one to circumnavigate. We trust that victim blaming will be studiously avoided.

Concerning outcomes, the charge includes the verbs “question,” “reflect,” “report,” and “recommend.” We suggest it go one step further and include the word “present.” With widespread attention currently directed at the crisis of on-campus sexual violence spurred by President Barack Obama’s recent establishment of a national task force on the issue, we are at a unique place in history where Harvard can make a difference.

Pride in our alma mater would be somewhat restored if Harvard could take the lead in sharing what the task force learns with the rest of the nation. We suggest a concluding open conference at which the task force’s recommendations are shared with the wider academic community. What better time than April—Sexual Assault Awareness Month—2015, precisely a year after the Crimson’s publication of Dear Harvard: You Win?

Last, but not least: Anonymous, our hearts are with you. Too many of us identify with you all too well. We virtually hold you in our arms, and are deeply sorry that our Harvard failed you on so many levels.

There were several things that made my class, the Class of 1980, and those immediately surrounding it, very special. We arrived at Harvard during a decade that witnessed a sea shift in the status of women in America and at Harvard. We were among the small number of classes to receive a Harvard-Radcliffe diploma, among the first to live in co-educational housing, to share Lamont, and to participate equally in varsity athletics. I was one of the first students privileged to work at the Schlesinger Library of the History of American Women, and my roommate Laura E. Schanberg ’80 was the first female sports editor at the Crimson. But we also confronted sexism at every turn. Although we took pride in Harvard’s integration of women and men, we hoped future women undergraduates would have an easier time being women at the College than we did. After reading last week’s stories and meeting with undergraduates, I’m aware that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

Alumni and alumnae have the power to hold the administration to high standards of transparency, gender equity, and inclusivity in this critical work. If we do, we have a much better chance of achieving the Harvard my classmates and I believed the integration of women into one of the most influential old boys’ clubs in the world could bring.

Lisa E. Paige ’80, is the president of The Alumnae Network for Harvard Women, a Shared Interest Group in the process of planning a survivor support event, entitled “Surviving Silence”, on May 29, details of which along with additional information will be posted at www.harvardwomen.net.

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