By Nathan A. Cummings

Seeking Trust: Navigating Harvard's Sexual Assault Policies

With their sexual assault policies under scrutiny by the federal government, students, and professors alike, Harvard's Title IX administrators have done their best to keep up. Questions, though, persist: How does Harvard respond to cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault? And how should it?
By Andrew M. Duehren and Emma K. Talkoff

“I’ve been here for six months, and I’ve never heard of unwelcome conduct before. Do you expect people to come in knowing something about what that means?”

Amelia Y. Goldberg ’19 asks her question from the side of the Emerson lecture hall. She’s speaking directly to the curly-haired woman who stands before a small crowd of Harvard students and administrators. They’re gathered in the voluminous room for a talk titled “Sex at the College: What Does Harvard’s Policy Mean?”

It’s been a turbulent few years at Harvard. The federal government has launched investigations into the University’s compliance with the anti-sexual discrimination law Title IX—twice. Harvard overhauled its sexual harassment policies almost two years ago, garnering criticism from students and professors. A growing bureaucracy of Title IX administrators has done its best to keep up. A sense of urgency—even pain—fills the lecture hall. How does Harvard respond to cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault? And how should it?

Mia Karvonides, the woman at the front, has an answer ready.

“The unwelcome conduct standard is the very fundamental civil rights standard,” Karvonides responds, quoting almost verbatim the definition the federal government provides for sexual harassment. “Unwelcome conduct” has also become, under Karvonides, a core part of the University’s new definition of sexual harassment. “It’s been around for decades and decades, and there’s a strong legal foundation for it,” she says.

Title IX Officer Mia Karvonides explains Harvard University policy concerning unwelcome sexual contact at a town hall hosted by the UC. Karvonides later answered questions from students and undergraduate council members.
Title IX Officer Mia Karvonides explains Harvard University policy concerning unwelcome sexual contact at a town hall hosted by the UC. Karvonides later answered questions from students and undergraduate council members. By Thomas W. Franck

Karvonides is Harvard’s first-ever Title IX officer, responsible, in part, for assuring the University’s compliance with the law. Once a civil rights attorney for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, she ticks through relevant case law with a near-staccato efficiency, explaining federal guidance and requirements under Title IX over the course of the evening. She redirects questions back to members of the crowd, guiding them through Harvard’s Title IX mechanisms and administration.

By now, Karvonides is an old hand at this type of public event. The University’s policies include confusing, technical language, and Karvonides breaks from her more lawyerly training to explain it.

“Where we have fallen short since the policy went into effect is in being outward facing and having this conversation with students,” she says.

Though a response to Goldberg’s prompt, Karvonides’s admission extends well beyond any one undergraduate’s question, but hints at a problem affecting much of the College. A University survey on sexual assault last year revealed a broad state of confusion and mistrust in Harvard’s sexual assault response, as well as an alarming prevalence of sexual assault. Going off that data, less than one quarter of female undergraduates have faith in the College to act against perpetrators, less than one quarter are “very or extremely knowledgeable” about the University’s definitions for sexual harassment, and less than one quarter even know where to file a sexual assault complaint.

Karvonides directs the question back at Goldberg. “With what I’ve described, is it compelling? Does it match what you want as a member of this community?”

Goldberg pauses for a long moment. “It’s not that I have any specific problem with the policy,” she says finally. “But when I go out on a Friday night, I’m really not confident that anyone else in the room is going to know what ‘unwelcome conduct’ means.”

Karvonides’s earnest question to Goldberg reflects a broader tension in her work. Fresh off a more-than-decade long career as a civil rights lawyer, Karvonides came to Cambridge in 2013 as Harvard aimed to align itself with increasingly stringent federal Title IX standards.

But beyond crafting policy and ensuring federal compliance, Karvonides has had to work with students to respond to the feeling that, for some, Harvard is not a safe place.

‘Crisis Management’

When Mia Karvonides talks about sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus, she’s quick to draw attention to the complexity of the phenomenon. Rather than the “drunken hookup” scenarios that Karvonides says she sees in articles about college sexual assault, “there can be allegations of sexual assault, plus stalking plus something else… and it’s more complicated.”

Instead, Karvonides says, potential sexual misconduct and violence can be more nuanced—and so, too, must be the response. Of the 34 cases the Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution—abbreviated to ODR— has investigated since it opened in 2014, 13 involved parties were in a “dating relationship” and 16 of the total cases involved allegations of sexual assault.

As Harvard’s Title IX Officer, Karvonides wears an ever-growing number of professional hats. She oversees Harvard’s web of 50 Title IX coordinators at each of the 12 schools and units, and works on communicating Harvard’s Title IX resources to students, faculty and staff at the University—a role that she says takes up about half of her work time. She also directs the Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution as it investigates formal complaints of sexual harassment at each of Harvard’s schools and divisions except the Law School.

A one-time employee of Bowdoin College and the Vermont Department of Education, Karvonides came to Harvard from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, an agency whose rulemaking and guidance on Title IX she now helps Harvard to interpret and follow. From all her wide-ranging past positions, Karvonides identifies one connecting theme: crisis control.

“I think in most of my positions—I haven’t really thought about this before—but there’s been a component of crisis management,” she says. “Looking at things from a policy perspective, being forward thinking, but also having to put out fires, and responding to situations that are highly charged that may include traumatic experiences for individuals and doing it in a sensitive way and an effective way.”

Mia Karvonides, the Title IX coordinator at Harvard, spoke to the Crimson on 5/21 about Harvard's first year enforcing a new sexual harassment policy.
Mia Karvonides, the Title IX coordinator at Harvard, spoke to the Crimson on 5/21 about Harvard's first year enforcing a new sexual harassment policy. By Savannah I. Whaley

Karvonides arrived at Harvard in 2013 to do much the same.

At the time, Harvard seemed vulnerable. Its Title IX policies and procedures were not completely in sync with the federal guidance released in a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, which intensified federal pressure on colleges and universities across the country. As the federal government released its new guidelines, Wendy Murphy, a professor at New England Law School, filed a Title IX complaint against Harvard Law School, arguing that the Law School’s procedures and policy violated Title IX. OCR opened the case.

Arriving at Harvard after more than five years at OCR, Karvonides would have to move swiftly to review the situation and formulate new policies at a nearly 400-year-old University that rarely enacts changes quickly. But it’s a role she says she relished.

“I wanted to see if this could be done well,” Karvonides, who emphasizes again and again that she approaches her job as a neutral investigator, says. “If I got the position, I was going to be Harvard’s first Title IX officer. And so it was somewhat of a blank slate.”

In her first few months at Harvard, Karvonides says, she spent a lot of time “listening to people on the front lines”—meeting with members of each school who had fielded student disclosure of assault or harassment.

Much of what she heard, she says, was surprising.

“The thing that struck me, was there were so few people coming forward,” she says. “Really, I would talk to people that were here for 10 years, and they would struggle to come up with a handful of incidents of the times when someone came in their office to talk about these issues. So that was really striking to me.”

For Karvonides, the low number of disclosures—when a student talks to a Title IX coordinator about a case, even without necessarily filing a formal complaint—was concerning. With the advice of “front line” sexual assault experts across the University, she began to to formulate a new set of centralized Title IX policies and procedures at Harvard in the summer of 2013.

But as the University progressed along an incremental path to policy change, criticism of Harvard’s Title IX compliance exploded. The federal government launched yet another investigation into Harvard’s compliance with Title IX in April 2014, and a newly created University-wide task force began working to overhaul Harvard’s sexual assault prevention efforts. Students’ criticisms of Harvard were louder than ever.

Then, in July 2014, after a semester of seemingly unprecedented pressure and student frustration, Harvard unveiled the result of Karvonides’s months of work: a new policy defining sexual harassment at Harvard and an accompanying set of procedures for investigating cases of alleged harassment and assault.

Instead of a provincial model in which every school at Harvard investigated cases and defined sexual harassment in its own way, there was now a unified definition and centralized investigative model. The new policies would also bring Harvard into more direct compliance with federal guidelines—the school adopted OCR’s preferred “preponderance of the evidence” standard—as it contended with two federal investigations.

As Karvonides likes to recite, Harvard University now defined sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” that is “sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it interferes with or limits a person’s ability to participate in or benefit from the University’s education or work programs or activities (hostile environment).” Almost a direct graft from the OCR’s 2001 Title IX guidance, the new policy would be enforced by the newly created Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute resolution, the investigative office that Karvonides now directs.

Just how the policy and investigation model would actually work remained to be seen.

The Investigation

Even with the University's new policy in accordance with federal guidelines, students who have filed assault cases have found that many challenges remain.

By the time Alyssa R. Leader ’15 formally disclosed her case, waiting was no longer an option. “I was really fearful for my safety,” she says over the phone.

Her lawyer is also on the line. Going public with her experience battling Harvard’s Title IX policies has shaped Leader’s life lately.

The culmination of that struggle came in February, when Leader filed a lawsuit against Harvard, arguing that the University had not properly responded to her complaint of sexual abuse and harassment. In the suit, Leader says she had been sexually abused across several months during the course of a “dating relationship” with a male student referred to in the suit as “John Doe 1.” Allegedly, the student then continued to intimidate and harass Leader in Cabot House, where they both lived.

In the fall of 2014, Leader first decided to take action.

Harvard students who want to talk to someone about an incident of sexual assault or harassment have an alphabet soup of options to choose from. Students who want confidential counseling from professional victim advocates can call representatives of OSAPR, the Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. Or, students can talk to the SASH (Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment) tutors assigned to each upperclassmen house (Freshmen are assigned two Consent Advocate and Relationship Educators (CARE) proctors. Tutors and proctors serve as gateways to other resources. A student might reach out to peer counselors from RESPONSE or CAARE, Consent Assault Awareness and Relationship educators, who operate under the purview of OSAPR, or general counselors at the BSC, the Bureau of Study Counsel. Students can also report sexual assault or harassment to HUPD—the Harvard University Police Department.

A discussion held by representatives from OSAPR (Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response), HUHS (Harvard University Health Services) , HUPD (Harvard University Police Department), SMHS (Student Mental Health Services), Response, and the Administration Board about what is done when someone is concerned about sexual assault at Harvard in 2012.
A discussion held by representatives from OSAPR (Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response), HUHS (Harvard University Health Services) , HUPD (Harvard University Police Department), SMHS (Student Mental Health Services), Response, and the Administration Board about what is done when someone is concerned about sexual assault at Harvard in 2012. By Katharine R Putnam

Many of these organizations provide support, advise students on medical or legal action, and offer counseling. Alicia Oeser, the director of OSAPR, describes the approach as “nondirective.”

“I want to say, ‘Here are the options, here’s what it looks like, what is it that you would like to get out of this,’” Oeser says, describing how she someone from her office might advise a student. “But that is us asking some probing questions to help them realize what that might look like, and then give them the time and space to give them the decision that they feel most comfortable with.”

Official support measures, administrative sanctions, and investigations, though, flow through Title IX Coordinators, the Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution, abbreviated as ODR, and the Administrative Board.

ODR is one of the more recent additions to the list of student resources. Investigators from the office, which is growing after having remained understaffed for months, begin investigations after students, faculty, or staff have filed a formal complaint. Those investigators then determine whether there has been violation of the policy. Karvonides says about half of ODR investigations find some violation. ODR officers then pass along the ruling to the respective schools’ disciplinary boards, which determine sanctions.

Leader’s suit argues that she received inconsistent and confusing information from different administrators at different points in this lengthy process. She felt helpless and lost.

“Harvard is a leader in so many things, and they have an opportunity to be a leader in this area,” Leader says. “I certainly expected them to be, and they did not live up to my expectations.”

Harvard does not comment on pending litigation, but the University must soon respond to Leader’s complaint in court.

According to the suit, after running into John Doe 1 repeatedly in Cabot, Leader requested that administrators remove him from the House. No one she talked to, she says, helped her make that happen.

The suit charges that the resident dean at Leader’s House, Tiffanie Ting, told her she could not have John Doe 1 removed from Cabot. Back in the Smith Center, Emily Miller, the College’s Title IX coordinator, told her the same thing, according to the suit. So Leader took the next step: She filed a formal complaint with ODR in February 2015, launching an investigation into the conduct.

Leader says that when she requested a no-contact order, an Ad Board interim measure that prevents students from talking to or approaching one another, she received conflicting and confusing advice. The complicated investigative process, Leader says, was devastating.

“It’s obviously extremely psychologically damaging,” Leader says. “You feel like less of a person, like you don’t matter especially when you’re ignored by my college—when you go to people and say you’re afraid for your safety and they just kind of shrug.”

Another source of frustration came from the office’s use of the now-abandoned definition of sexual harassment and sexual assault from the 1993 policy. Much of the conduct in question between Leader and John Doe 1 occurred before Harvard adopted its centralized policy and procedures in September 2014. So ODR used the previous policy in her case, not the 2014 unwelcome conduct standard, according to Leader.

Outside of Harvard, though, Leader found some reprieve. After Leader went to court, she obtained a restraining order and John Doe 1 was moved from Cabot House, according to her lawsuit. Doe and Leader graduated together in 2015, the ODR investigation—filed roughly three months earlier—still in progress.

Finally, on July 17, 2015, ODR ruled that John Doe 1 was “not responsible” for any of the allegations against him, according to the suit.

“Obviously, I completely disagreed,” she says. “To me, it was clear there was some sort of policy violation.”

But the process was not yet over for Leader. Regardless of how ODR investigators rule, the cases progresses to the Ad Board for a sanction ruling. So Aug. 18, 2015, per the suit, the Ad Board found a ruling of “Scratch,” an effective exoneration for Doe, according to the suit.

Leader says the decision did not surprise her.

“They were...extremely indifferent,” Leader says. “Despite the fact that I said, ‘I’m scared, I’m afraid for my safety,’ they didn’t do anything.”

The painful experience inspired Leader to sue Harvard. She hoped that it would attract public scrutiny.

“Obviously, my own situation was really frustrating and handled really inappropriately, but even more frustrating to me is that I graduated and I kept hearing about students who had similar experiences,” Leader says.

While the suit does not represent Karvonides by name, it does challenge her work: Karvonides helped create the very process that Leader described as long and discouraging.

Yet in many ways, Karvonides’s work is making a difference. The number of cases the ODR investigates has continued to increase, a signal that more students, faculty, and staff are coming forward. In its first year of operation, ODR heard 15 cases and about two-thirds through its second, it has heard 19 cases. For Karvonides, this is a clear sign of success when so many students had hesitated to come forward before.

And Karvonides says she hopes to decrease the time it takes to complete investigations. “I am constantly examining the manner in which we do our work to identify ways to reduce the length of time to complete a case while not compromising on thoroughness, sensitivity to the parties, and equity,” she says.

While Leader remains the only student to have publicly filed a suit against Harvard, others remain skeptical about the way Harvard responds to reports of sexual assault.

Megan G. Jones ’16 is one such student. Jones decided not to report her assault both because it took place off campus and because she distrusted Harvard’s investigative process.

“I didn’t want to take any kind of administrative action. And I think a lot of that motivated from the fear that it would be more dramatic than what I'd like it to be, that it would not work in my favor, that it would not be a fair, quick process,” Jones says.

Mike C. Ross ’16, who published an account of his assault in an article titled “Getting raped at Harvard: a guy’s experience” on The Tab in December, said he also chose not to report file a report. He said that the “horror stories” he had heard from other victims were one of the factors discouraged him from pursuing a formal process.

“I have not heard of a good experience with the administration,” says Ross. “Even if I had in the first month thought to myself, I was to report this—which at no point did I ever—yeah, I would have been like, ‘Hmm, sounds like a bad idea.’”

Karvonides says that more education about the way Harvard’s process works will help build trust.

“The more people come forward that suggests to me that they’re knowledgeable, that we’re starting to increase trust, that they’re getting connected to people with expertise in this area that can better support them,” Karvonides says. “And that’s my ultimate goal.”

But even after the investigation ends and Karvonides’s work is over, there are places in the process where students can still be left feeling lost.

Case Closed?

Every so often, John P. Finnegan ’16 runs into the student he says sexually assaulted him. Though ODR determined that the student had engaged in unwelcome sexual conduct, the Ad Board decided not to remove him from campus, according to Finnegan.

“He’s still on campus, and I see him every so often. It’s kind of like the bogey man,” Finnegan, a former associate business manager for The Crimson, says. “He just exists—just when you’re walking around, he just pops up, and you're just thrown out of sync for the rest of the day.”

Finnegan is living one of the “horror stories” that scared Ross away from disclosing his assault. After ODR rules on a case, the school’s disciplinary board must still determine whether and how to punish the assailant. That part of the process, too, sometimes leaves students dissatisfied.

Finnegan chose to disclose his case and pursue a formal investigation. After he obtained a no-contact order, Finnegan said ODR investigated his case, and several months later, in May, they ruled that a policy violation had occurred.

A week after ODR finished its investigation, the Ad Board announced that it would place the respondent on disciplinary probation, but not mandate withdrawal as Finnegan had requested, according to Finnegan. Finnegan’s alleged assailant would stay on campus, he said, and the mark on his academic record—the only official public record of the incident—would eventually disappear.

“The message that it sent to me was that it didn’t really matter, what happened, and that I was expected to deal with it. And I guess I have,” says Finnegan, who describes feeling unsafe at night on campus.

“It doesn’t matter to me that he’s on probation, it doesn’t make me feel any safer on campus,” says Finnegan. For him, the sanction came as an “insult.”

“I mean, it’s less punishment than you would get if you had cheated on a CS50 pset,” Finnegan says.

Brett Flehinger, Assistant Dean of the College and Associate Dean of Academic Integrity and Student Conduct for the Ad Board, wrote in an email that the Ad Board weighs a number of factors in making such disciplinary decisions.

“In making any disciplinary decisions we are always weighing the significance of the action along with the particular details of the concern,” Flehinger wrote.

Some students find the discrepancy between ODR investigation findings and Ad Board decisions troubling. For these students, the benefits promised by the Title IX policy have remained out of reach.

“The issue is no one really knows who the Ad Board is and how they’re determining things,”Andrea Ortiz ’16 says.

Jessica R. Fournier ’17, a leader of the victim advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better, points out that many students only contact the Ad Board through their resident dean.

“If someone does not have a good relationship with their resident dean, that can be a huge problem,” she says. “I think resident deans also vary in their personality, in the type of training they receive, in how seriously they take these issues.”

Because the Ad Board also oversees the granting of interim measures, like academic extensions and no-contact orders, says Fournier ’17, this variation can result in inconsistencies and present roadblocks to students.

“It doesn’t seem sustainable to me to have a system in which so much depends on one person and their position,” she says.

Adam Muri-Rosenthal, the resident dean for Adams House, says that he and other resident deans approach disclosures “with great sensitivity to the victims.”

“I think that’s something that we as administrators are constantly trying to get students to understand,” Muri-Rosenthal says. “We want to support them in the best way possible.”

Finnegan feels like he chose the wrong path in dealing with his assault. Though the ODR confirmed that Finnegan lived in a “hostile environment” the Ad Board, says Finnegan, did not mitigate that environment.

“The lack of any meaningful response to that validation is almost more insulting than if they just said, ‘No, nothing happened,’” Finegan says. “I would have preferred to have not brought the case in the first place.”

Unwelcome Conduct

The trek up to the ninth floor of the Smith Campus Center is a long one. When students come to see Karvonides—to discuss policy, to air concerns, maybe just to say hello—they pass two security guards and walk through a mechanized gate. An elevator ride brings them to the fluorescently lit hallway outside Karvonides’s office, where she says she maintains an “open door policy” to make time for students.

Reaching out to—and event debating with—students has become an important part of Karvonides’s role at Harvard. Not yet two years old, Harvard’s Title IX policies and procedures remain unfamiliar to many students. For Karvonides’s policy work to have an impact, she says, people need to understand it.

It’s not an easy task.

In a report released this week, a task force dedicated to studying sexual assault prevention identified a barrier to combating the issue on campus: Generally, students don’t know about or understand how Harvard approaches sexual assault.

“Based upon the AAU Survey and the Task Force’s outreach findings, it is clear that we have fallen short in making students aware of how sexual misconduct is defined, where to get help when sexual assault or other misconduct occurs, where and how to report incidents, and what is likely to happen after an incident is reported,” the report reads, referencing the sexual climate survey from last year.

The report recommended that Harvard mandate annual sexual assault prevention trainings for all students, among other measures.

“The challenge is, how do you communicate it?” Karvonides acknowledges. “There are no magic words. There's no simple way to get that out and that's something that I feel that my office needs to work with students in those regards.”

For some students, though, the issue extends beyond communication; several student activist groups, like Our Harvard Can Do Better and the graduate student group Harvard Students Demand Respect, have called for a wholesale change of the policy’s language. The policies may not be entirely set in stone, either. Earlier this year, a group of faculty, staff, and students began meeting to review Harvard’s new Title IX policies and consider making changes.

“The policy is written in an incredibly legalistic way that is not accessible to students, and really not accessible to anyone without a law degree,” says Fournier. Fournier and other students point out that the policy can’t be effective if it’s incomprehensible to those whom it governs.

Many students have critiqued how the policy addresses consent. In the Title IX policy developed under Karvonides’s leadership, a violation is defined by the standard “unwelcome conduct.” Karvonides believes this standard is exacting, while generous enough to encompass the wide range of possible violations that the policy must cover.

“The thing that’s important to understand is that our standard is not a higher or lower bar than those we see at other schools that have affirmative consent policies,” Karvonides says. “I think we have a more nuanced approach to identifying what conduct is prohibited at Harvard.”

The unwelcome conduct standard, says Karvonides, allows investigators to capture and assess not just an assault, but the other forms of related behavior that often accompany it—including stalking and other forms of harassment. This is something she says is more difficult or impossible at universities where the “affirmative consent” standard separates assault from harassment.

Karvonides is open to talking to students, but she’s not one to quickly back down. Last spring, student activists dropped their campaign for an affirmative consent clause in the University’s definition of sexual harassment after extensive meetings with Karvonides.

The Title IX Office provided an informational pamphlet about sexual violence during a presentation on sexual assault and bystander intervention featuring former Burlington, Vt. Police Chief Tom Tremblay in Ticknor Lounge in December 2015.
The Title IX Office provided an informational pamphlet about sexual violence during a presentation on sexual assault and bystander intervention featuring former Burlington, Vt. Police Chief Tom Tremblay in Ticknor Lounge in December 2015. By Madeline R. Lear

Students are not the only ones wary of Harvard’s policies. Professors at Harvard Law School have publicly—in the pages of The Boston Globe and elsewhere—criticized both the language of Harvard’s policy and the way in which it investigates complaints, arguing that they were stacked against the accused. And the Law School followed through on their criticisms in a big way: They opted out of Karvonides’s much-criticized system and developed an independent set of procedures for investigating sexual harassment and assault. Some still want to change Harvard’s policy.

When the federal government found the Law School in violation of Title IX in December 2014, it, too, called on the University to tweak some of its Title IX policies.

Knowledge and Trust

Some students, frustrated by lengthy investigations and unclear policy language, no longer trust the Title IX policy and procedures.

Joshua D. Blecher-Cohen ’16, an intern at the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, says that queer and trans students find communicating with administrators about sexual assault particularly difficult. Though sexual assault disproportionately affects these students, Blecher-Cohen says that they are underrepresented in the policymaking process.

The sexual misconduct survey last semester found that 17.2 percent of female, and 10.9 percent of male Harvard students who identified themselves as LGBAQN—lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, questioning, or not listed—reported experiencing nonconsensual contact involving physical force or incapacitation since fall 2014, as compared to 12 percent of straight female, and 2.7 percent of straight male undergraduates.

“If you feel marginalized because of your gender identity or sexual orientation enough times, then when you really need resources, or when you really need to be able to have faith that the University is going to help, then you’re stuck,” Blecher-Cohen says. “That’s really scary.”

Karvonides said she has prioritized addressing student concerns and confusion.

“My little mantra is knowledge and trust,” Karvonides says. “We need to constantly be looking at ways to increase knowledge and trust.”

To that end, Karvonides held the town hall in Emerson. She has also created secondary materials with students from the Undergraduate Council and Our Harvard Can Do Better. Last week, for instance, Karvonides’s office distributed pamphlets about Title IX policy to student dorms.

As part of its agreement with OCR, Title IX Office also released answers to of “Frequently Asked Questions” in the fall of 2015. The 10-page document clarified—and in some cases, expanded—Harvard’s policy and procedures.

In particular, the document expanded upon how the University differentiates between incapacitation and intoxication—“Sexual activity following consumption of drugs or alcohol is not automatically deemed to be unwelcome,” it stated—and provided more explicit information about how investigations proceed. The FAQs emphasized the policy’s protection of academic freedom. After the policy came out, some Law School professors expressed concern that students could complain about language used in discussion of topics rape law. It also introduced a “reasonable person” standard, meaning that a “reasonable person considering all the circumstances would find the conduct unwelcome and the environment hostile.”

Like the policy itself, the FAQ takes up the difficult dual role of complying with federal regulation and explaining complicated policy to students.

Ross, in his article in the Tab, wrote that the FAQ read as though “Kafka tried to write a guide to navigating sexual assault.”

“Every effort there is to make this a more clear, explained issue for students on campus, there’s like, ‘But who is the person who I can trust or talk to?’” says Ross. “Often the person you feel you can trust and talk to does not overlap with the administration.”

Karvonides has been working with students for more than a year to develop a second FAQ aimed at addressing lingering questions. According to Karvonides, the Title IX Office is in the process of “distilling and refining” the document.

Ross says that frustration with Harvard sexual assault policy has reached a tipping point. “I think this year has been really encouraging,” Ross says, pointing to the survey, the rally, and everything that came after. “I think basically, the ball is definitely in the higher-ups’ court.”

‘A Good Signal'

Frustration with the administration has prompted some students to seek closure elsewhere.

Ortiz and Eriko Kay ’17 plan to create an open-ended support group for sexual assault victims and allies, in response to what they see as the administration’s “disempowering” lack of transparency.

“We want to create this group for survivors and allies, because, currently, there is no one to turn to if you go through this experience,” Ortiz says. Ortiz envisions the group as a forum for victims of sexual assault and allies to meet and discuss issues of assault on campus, as well as simply a “safe space” for victims to socialize.

Students line up to sign a petition in support of demands to overhaul Harvard's sexual assault prevention programs at a rally outside Massachusetts Hall in November 2015. Students said Harvard should require mandatory yearly sexual assault training for undergraduates and additional training for sexual violence response tutors in addition to increasing funding for the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.
Students line up to sign a petition in support of demands to overhaul Harvard's sexual assault prevention programs at a rally outside Massachusetts Hall in November 2015. Students said Harvard should require mandatory yearly sexual assault training for undergraduates and additional training for sexual violence response tutors in addition to increasing funding for the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. By Sidni M. Frederick

Right now, Ortiz says, she and Kay are meeting with administrators to discuss the group and “get a lay of the land.”

“Speaking to people has been frustrating because I feel like a lot of heads of Houses and administrators and just people in power sort of applaud us for thinking of creating this community among students,” says Ortiz, “but the reason that it’s there is because the other systems that are supposed to be working are failing.”

Meanwhile, back in her office, Karvonides easily fills her days. She reviews investigations, meets with her staff, and strategizes about how to better present the policy she has worked so hard to create.

With almost three years, a policy overhaul, a blockbuster survey, and ongoing federal investigation under her belt, Karvonides shows no signs of slowing down. She wants to repeat the survey to gather more data and examine her office’s impact. She wants to hire more investigators. She wants more students to know, understand, and trust the policies and procedures she helped craft.

Karvonides emphasizes that ODR has already made tangible progress, citing the increase in disclosures since the office opened.

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