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On March 31 of this year, an anonymous student wrote a harrowing first-person account of sexual assault on Harvard’s campus and the allegedly inadequate response of administrators in an op-ed that captured the attention of the campus community and national media alike.
After seeking recourse from administrators multiple times and failing, the author seemed resigned to the reality that “my assailant will remain unpunished, and life on this campus will continue its course as if nothing has happened.”
“Dear Harvard: You might have won, but I still have a voice. And I plan on using it as much as I can to make things change,” she wrote.
But things did change. “We must do better,” University President Drew G. Faust wrote in an email to the Harvard community four days later, announcing the creation of a task force chaired by Professor Stephen E. Hyman that would provide recommendations to improve Harvard’s handling of sexual assault. The task force returned four early recommendations in mid-May to President Faust, who accepted them and placed them into immediate effect.
Among the recommendations are increased funding of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Research and a proposal that the University’s constituent schools develop sexual-assault prevention education for their orientation programs in consultation with OSAPR and the Title IX office. Both are important—understaffed and underfunded resources for students dealing with sexual assault risk slow and ineffective responses.
In early May Faust also announced the creation of a committee, composed of faculty and four students that will work on updating the individual schools’ policies to be more in line with the as-of-yet unapproved and unreleased revised university-wide policy. While this is all encouraging, the University has repeatedly come under fire for doing too little. Harvard only appointed a University-wide Title IX Coordinator in March of last year, after a Title IX complaint against Harvard Law School for its sexual assault policies drew an ongoing investigation from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. More recently, students filed a complaint against Harvard College this April.
These developments come as a string of high-profile investigations at the University of Connecticut, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and others have drawn national attention to the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. The Department of Education made public a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for sexual violence policies in conflict with Title IX. Harvard College and Harvard Law School both made the list, unfortunately.
President Barack Obama convened a White House task force in January to address the issue, and the group’s first report released in April rightly faulted many universities for not doing enough to prevent this plague on their campuses and released new guidelines for how schools should combat this problem. The White House also launched a new public service campaign, “1 is 2 Many,” featuring several famous actors, the vice president, and the president, encouraging men “to speak up and step in if they see someone in danger of being sexually assaulted.”
These are productive steps forward at a time when one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college. Yet, there is only so much change that can be instituted from the top—no matter if from individual administrators, university presidents, or the White House itself. A true and permanent change can only come from eliminating the culture of shame, silence, and repression that surrounds sexual violence.
The recommendations of the Harvard task force are in line with that spirit. Funding OSAPR and ensuring robust Title IX enforcement are needed for proper responses, but prevention begins with educating the entire student body on their duty in preventing sexual violence on campus. There can be no idle bystanders.
One easy first step is attending the Sexual Assault Awareness Month events. Another is to have campus organizations proactively educating themselves on sexual assault prevention. The new OSAPR liaison program is an example, where school organizations with a significant social component or space are invited to have one or more members participate in a half-day training on sexual assault prevention. The liaisons continue to have biweekly meetings focused on changing the culture of their organization and get continued victim-response training.
Integrating this education in each school’s orientation programs is an important development. Harvard students should, from the outset of their time here, be made aware and vigilant.
Despite the importance of culture, there is still more that Harvard could do. The College’s policies for disciplining sexual assault, although currently under revision, have not been updated since 1993, and remain inadequate.
The Administrative Board through which victims of sexual assault can seek recourse remains stubbornly stuck to an opaque “sufficiently persuaded” standard. Most of Harvard’s peers have adopted a “preponderance of evidence” standard, which has a much clearer legal basis. Adhering to “sufficiently persuaded”—thought to require a higher threshold than the preponderance of evidence standard recommended by the OCR—makes it more difficult to discipline students accused of sexual misconduct, causing even more strife for their victims.
No student’s time here should be marred by the trauma of a sexual assault, even if it were dealt with in the swiftest and most just way possible. No student should feel so isolated and abandoned that he or she is forced to issue a public plea in order to receive some remedies.
In the words of President Faust: “Sexual assault should not exist on campus. … It is just totally at odds with everything we believe in and want to be.” Though Harvard is on the way there, we have a lot of work left to create a campus culture that truly practices the mantra “1 is 2 Many.”
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