From Policy to Practice

Harvard turns its eye to campus culture in fight against sexual assault

As the current president of Consent, Assault Awareness and Relationship Educators, and someone directly involved in teaching a sexual assault workshop to incoming freshmen, Demetrio D. Anaya ’15 is well-acquainted with what he believes are deep-rooted misconceptions about sexual violence held by his peers.

"When you get started, you think you're going to walk into a room and teach them about sexual assault, and you're going to change everyone either from indifferent on the issue or neutral on the issue to being huge supporters of sexual assault [prevention], and you quickly realize that to make that kind of change in an hour workshop is almost impossible,” he said.

This difficulty is indicative of a larger problem. Even as Harvard appears to stand on the cusp of changes to its sexual assault policies—University President Drew G. Faust said in April that the University has submitted a revised policy to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights—activists and administrators alike say that the next hurdle, which is related but perhaps more daunting, is changing a culture that propagates the normalcy of sexual violence and mistreatment of its victims.


In early May, the U.S. Department of Education released the names of 55 colleges and universities across the country, including Harvard, facing federal investigation for failure to comply with Title IX regulations. The announcement came weeks after students at the College submitted a complaint regarding Title IX compliance to the OCR at the Department of Education and four years after federal officials began investigating Harvard Law School for another complaint, a process that is still ongoing.

"[Legal] obligations should not alone define Harvard's commitment to providing an educational environment in which all students have the opportunity to thrive," University President Drew G. Faust said.

Across the University, student activists, such as those involved in Our Harvard Can Do Better, a survivor-centric organization that aims to dismantle rape culture on campus, have pointed to the inclusion of affirmative consent, the standard of evidence used in sexual assault cases, and the standardization of procedure across schools as policy changes the University could enact to comply with Title IX while improving sexual assault response and prevention.

A similar conversation has attracted attention on a national scale, culminating in the formation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault and public condemnation of its prevalence on campuses from President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and other high-profile politicians and celebrities. In late April, the OCR released a 53-page document on handling Title IX complaints.

That document suggested, among other changes to its policy, that Harvard should replace its current “sufficient persuasion” burden of proof in Administrative Board cases to a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, believed by some to be a lower burden of proof than the standard Harvard current uses.

That discrepancy between Harvard’s policy and what activists see as obvious improvements has provoked outrage, mirrored on other campuses, in a number of forms. Just this year, Our Harvard Can Do Better representatives protested and held signs, including one which read “My friend’s rapist goes to class with me,” as prospective students walked by during Visitas, the College’s admitted students preview weekend.

When University President Drew G. Faust announced the creation of a task force in many ways designed to galvanize a cultural awareness shift, she made clear abiding by governmental regulations is not the only thing at stake.

The recommendations of the task force, which Faust accepted in mid-May, suggested more prevention training during freshmen orientations, increased funding for the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, and funds for a campus climate survey.

“[Legal] obligations should not alone define Harvard’s commitment to providing an educational environment in which all students have the opportunity to thrive,” Faust wrote at the time of the task force’s creation.


While policy considerations have largely driven the national conversation, and, it appears, the administration has taken—or is prepared to take—concrete steps related to sexual assault, many point to Harvard’s culture as a more fundamental source of problems related to sexual assault.