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Dear Harvard, Revisited

One year ago, in “Dear Harvard, You Win,” a survivor of sexual violence gave a firsthand account of the betrayal she experienced at the hands of not only her perpetrator but also her school. That piece ignited a wave of attention toward the rights and treatment of sexual violence survivors at Harvard, inspiring the creation of two task forces and prompting the University to share plans for policy reform. One year later, it is time to revisit what has changed, and what hasn’t, for survivors on campus. No survivor should ever experience what the author of “Dear Harvard” went through—but unfortunately, far too many of the experiences outlined in that op-ed are still a risk because of remaining gaps and omissions in policy, procedures, and training.

The author of “Dear Harvard” was discouraged from pursuing an Ad Board case because her assault may not have met the standards in Harvard’s policy. This past summer saw the release of the first updated sexual assault policy for FAS in twenty years, a policy created without the inclusion of students’ perspectives in a process that left survivors largely voiceless. Sexual conduct violates the current policy if it is “unwelcome,” replacing the negative consent language of the old policy, but still resisting affirmative consent language. The policy acknowledges mental incapacitation as a barrier to welcomeness, but contains few explanations of otherwise ambiguous language.

Eight months after the announcement of the new policy, there has been minimal explanation of its interpretation and application, so it is unclear how another “Dear Harvard” case would fare under the new standards. The clarity of this policy is vitally important: We should not expect survivors to navigate a nebulous, legalese-ridden system that is impossible to understand. If the University insists on using a standard with which most students are unfamiliar (like welcomeness), they should explain the policy publicly and accessibly.

“Dear Harvard” also highlighted how important residential accommodations, like the removal of an assailant from the survivor’s house, are for many survivors to feel safe enough to live and learn on campus. If the author of “Dear Harvard” sought the removal of her perpetrator from her house today, that process would likely require filing a complaint with the seven-month-old, understaffed Office of Sexual and Gender Based Dispute Resolution.

During a formal complaint process, an ODR investigator conducts interviews, assembles evidence and makes a finding of fact using the preponderance of evidence standard, a major change from the old, ambiguous “sufficiently persuaded” standard that violated Title IX. After ODR’s finding of fact, however, the Ad Board still has full control over disciplinary measures. The Ad Board is not bound by guidelines for appropriate sanctioning, and its opaque data does not reveal which sanctions are applied to which kinds of sexual misconduct. This lack of transparency perpetuates serious concerns about how the Ad Board is handling cases given the critcism they have received in the past about their response to sexual violence.

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In addition to residential accommodations, academic accommodations are important for ensuring survivors’ continued access to their educations. Academic accommodations like modifying course loads and rescheduling exams were accessible only through an Ad Board petition, which could only be brought to the Ad Board by the survivor’s resident dean. Others—extensions and rescheduling tests—depended on the goodwill of individual professors who were given no standardized policy for granting accomodations. Under the new policy, the ODR and the Title IX Coordinators are supposed to facilitate access, but these accommodations ultimately still hinge on the acquiescence of the professor or resident dean. The Title IX Coordinator still has no power to guarantee accommodations if a dean or professor resists helping a survivor access the accommodation they need to continue their education, and survivors still face dismissiveness from administrators who should be there to support them.

Harvard’s campus won’t be fair and safe for everyone until we have a clear and just policy, a transparent disciplinary process, and standardized access to critical residential and academic accommodations. Our new policy and procedures are a tentative step forward, but many important questions remain unanswered: What do the current standards actually mean? How will they be applied? Will they be adequate to address survivors’ needs? The handful of focus groups and open meetings this year that have served as the administration’s first steps towards student outreach must evolve into a concerted effort on the part of Harvard’s administration to involve survivors and students regularly, openly, and meaningfully in trainings and policy discussions. Despite forward movement, the words from “Dear Harvard” apply with as much force today as they did a year ago:

“We need more options for survivors...We need school officials to receive extensive training about how to handle sexual assault and talk to survivors. More importantly, we need the school to start listening to its students [and] to survivors.”

Drisana M. Mosaphir ‘17, Julia R. Geiger ‘16, and Emily M. Fox-Penner ‘17 are organizers with Our Harvard Can Do Better.

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