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Reaffirming Our Commitment in Uncertain Times

By Maria Francesconi, William D. McCants, Nicole M. Merhill, and Sheehan D. Scarborough

With the federal government’s recent withdrawal of the Dear Colleague Letter on Sexual Violence dated April 4, 2011, and the Questions and Answers on Title IX Sexual Violence dated April 29, 2014, there is understandable concern and uncertainty on campus about what will happen to Harvard University’s Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy and Procedures. We write today as partner offices to reaffirm our commitment to promoting gender equity and inclusion at Harvard, and combatting sexual and gender-based harassment, including sexual assault.

The University has reviewed the interim guidance issued last month by the U.S. Department of Education and determined that it does not, at this time, warrant changes to our University-wide Policy or Procedures. We are confident that our Policy and Procedures, as written, meet the requirements of Title IX, the Violence Against Women Act, and Massachusetts state law. Furthermore, we are committed to continuing to lead in this area through community outreach, education, and prevention efforts.

Over the past several years, Harvard has invested heavily in preventing gender-based and sexual harassment, including sexual violence, and promptly responding when it does occur. Part of this commitment has been the implementation of a University-wide Policy and Procedures that include a fair and neutral investigatory process, which is conducted by professionals with the training to handle these sensitive cases, and who recognize our obligations to all parties involved.

Some may worry that Harvard will back away from its policies and programs, and we want to underscore the University’s unwavering commitment to fostering an environment free from discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. While there is much work to be done, we remain dedicated to working together to identify ways to reduce and ultimately eliminate sexual discrimination and violence.

In 2003, Harvard College established the Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response as a central resource for education and support of students. Since that time, OSAPR has expanded to become a University-wide resource and as of 2013, crisis support and educational services became available to all students, staff, and faculty. Now, more than ever, OSAPR remains committed to the compassionate and just treatment of people who have been impacted by interpersonal violence. OSAPR also remains committed to creating attitudinal and behavioral change through discussion and education in our community.

In 2012, the College created the Office of BGLTQ Student Life with the goal of providing support, resources, and a space to build community for the queer student population on campus. The BGLTQ Office was also tasked with educating the broader campus on issues related to gender and sexuality. More recently, these educational efforts have come to include trainings and discussions on sexual violence, assault, and harassment specifically experienced by BGLTQ populations. From its inception, the Office of BGLTQ Student Life has dedicated substantial efforts to advocating for inclusivity throughout Harvard College, and to building relationships across campus with students, faculty, and staff.

In 2014, the University unveiled its new Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy and Procedure, which includes a preponderance of evidence standard. The University also created the Title IX Office and Office for Dispute Resolution. The Title IX Office works closely with the network of more than 50 trained Title IX Coordinators in schools and centers across campus to provide resources and supports to students, staff, and faculty. The Title IX Office has also partnered with the schools’ and units’ Title IX Coordinators to develop and roll out online training modules designed to raise awareness so that more community members are comfortable accessing resources when they experience or learn of an issue that could fall under our Policy. ODR, which is staffed with impartial and experienced investigators, is available to answer questions about the steps involved in pursuing an informal resolution or filing a formal complaint.

In 2015, the University convened a policy review committee to examine the implementation of the policy. Made up of students, faculty, staff, and administrators, the group meets regularly to examine data and monitor how the Policy and Procedures are implemented across the University.

Collaboration across University offices working on this issue is essential to the success of our education and prevention initiatives. To this end, the heads of the Title IX Office, ODR, OSAPR, and the Office of BGLTQ Student Life have been working closely together over the past year to bolster the University’s efforts in this arena. In addition to regular meetings, we have come together to co-host events and provide resources and trainings throughout the University community. We plan for these efforts not only to continue, but to increase over the coming academic years.

Still, there is much work to be done in this area, and we are committed taking on this task. We understand that the real test of our commitment will be putting words into action—namely through increased awareness, initiatives, educational programming, and improvements to the available resources.

The safety and well-being of the Harvard community remains our top priority. Above and beyond our obligation to follow the law, we remain committed to helping to formulate and to implement policy and procedures that work for, and protect, all of us.

Nicole M. Merhill is the University Title IX Officer. William D. McCants is the Director of the Office for Dispute Resolution. Sheehan D. Scarborough ’07 is the Director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life. Maria Francesconi is the Senior Director of Health Promotion and Education, including oversight of OSAPR.

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