‘Troubling’ Climate of Sexual Assault: One Year Later
Wednesday marks a year since University President Drew G. Faust unveiled what she called the “anguishing” results of a University-wide survey about the sexual climate on campus. Among other data points, that survey—conducted in the spring of 2015—found that nearly a third of senior undergraduate female respondents who were enrolled in Harvard College had experienced some form of sexual assault while at the College.
When somberly presenting the data to a crowded room at a townhall Sept. 21, 2015, Faust said Harvard’s response to sexual assault was “completely insufficient.”
Since the release of the survey results, Harvard has spent the year doubling down its sexual assault prevention efforts, culminating in a wide-ranging, 20-page report in March that recommended students receive annual sexual assault prevention training and that the University hire a new administrator to take charge of prevention efforts, among other suggestions. The report also lambasted historically all-male final clubs for their “deeply misogynistic attitudes” and said combatting sexual assault on campus could not be done without addressing the organizations.
The College has publicly accepted some recommendations, but not all. And the College, while still under investigation by the federal government for its compliance with anti-sex discrimination law Title IX, also faces an ongoing lawsuit with an alumna who charges Harvard administrators mishandled their response to her sexual harassment case.
What follows is a sketch of the past year, one in which Harvard students, faculty, and administrators grappled head-on with the realities and prevalence of campus sexual assault.
A sexual climate survey conducted in conjunction with the American Association of Universities revealed what administrators called a “troubling” climate of sexual misconduct on campus. The survey indicated a widespread lack of knowledge about University processes surrounding reports of sexual harassment or assault, and undergraduate respondents also generally reported they did not have faith in Harvard to respond to offenders.
Faust held a town hall the day the results were released, making clear her concern over the survey’s findings and promising action moving forward.
In mid-February, Cabot House alumna Alyssa R. Leader ’15 filed a lawsuit against Harvard charging the University with mishandling her case of sexual harassment. In the filings, Leader argued that administrators, including Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, ultimately let the alleged perpetrator live alongside her in Cabot despite her case against him.
Leader ultimately requested both compensation for herself and punitive damages for Harvard, claiming that Cabot House Resident Dean Tiffanie L. Ting not only refused to accommodate Leader after her assault, but actively discouraged her from filing an official report. The lawsuit is ongoing, and the University will go to court soon.
After months of information gathering, a University-wide task force appointed by Faust and charged with crafting recommending ways to prevent sexual assault on campus submitted its final report. The 20-page report addressed topics ranging from expanded BGLTQ support to the rethinking the College’s alcohol policy, additionally calling on the University to more closely scrutinize the College’s historically all-male final clubs.
Touted as a move to combat gender exclusivity, Faust emailed announced to all undergraduates a historic policy penalizing members of single-gender, unrecognized social groups, such as final clubs and Greek organizations. Effective with the College’s Class of 2021, students involved in such organizations will be ineligible for fellowships, club leadership, and team captaincies. The policy, which has prompted widespread debate, was characterized by some College officials as one to prevent sexual assault in addition to ending gender discrimination.
The College unveiled an online training module for students to complete annually, intended both to inform students of available resources for gender-based harassment and sexual assault and also educate students about Havard policies.
The interactive training, which undergraduates are required to complete by mid-October, complies with recommendations from the University-wide sexual assault prevention task force.
While students voiced praise for the online platform, some noted that the module should not replace frequent and in-person trainings for sexual assault prevention and response. After launching the module, both College Title IX coordinator Emily J. Miller and Khurana noted that more measures for undergraduate sexual assault prevention are soon to come.
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