Seeking to Prevent Sexual Assault, Harvard's Progress is Uneven

At an institution with a long history of decentralization, swift and coordinated action does not come easily—even on the “the serious problem of sexual assault.”
By Claire E. Parker

At a 2015 rally, students called on Harvard to commit more resources and attention to preventing sexual assaults on campus.
At a 2015 rally, students called on Harvard to commit more resources and attention to preventing sexual assaults on campus. By Sidni M. Frederick

This is Part I of a two-part series on Harvard's sexual assault prevention efforts. Part II, focusing on prevention efforts at the College, will run Feb. 27.

An annotated version of the sexual assault report, meant to accompany this article, can be found here.

Last March, when a task force studying sexual assault prevention at Harvard released its final report after two years of meetings, it did not mince words.

Using data gathered in a campus-wide sexual conduct survey that showed what University President Drew G. Faust called a “troubling” incidence of sexual assault, the task force issued extensive recommendations for improving Harvard’s prevention efforts. In particular, the task force called for the creation of a new administrative position dedicated to prevention efforts, mandatory annual training for all students, and additional resources for BGLTQ students.

The effort, the task force implored, would be University-wide.

“It is only through the joint engagement of all parts of our campus that Harvard will make durable and significant progress in addressing the serious and longstanding problem of sexual assault,” their report reads.

But nearly a year after the task force issued its recommendations, many remain unfulfilled—and in some cases, entirely ignored. Several schools have no plans to require training across class years or provide additional resources for BGLTQ students, who suffer disproportionately high rates of sexual assault, for example. And the University has not created a new position in the Office of the Provost as the report urged.

Parts of the University have mobilized to fulfill some of the task force’s recommendations. Faust and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana unveiled a controversial policy penalizing College students involved in single-gender social organizations—a policy a new faculty-led committee will soon reconsider.

The University-wide Title IX office and the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response continued to expand their staffs and reach. And each of Harvard’s 13 schools submitted implementation plans to Faust before the start of this academic year outlining steps they would undertake in the coming year.

Still, despite some strides, Harvard’s efforts to combat sexual assault have not progressed through the “joint engagement” the task force envisioned. Faced with widely disparate student populations at Harvard’s 13 schools and without forceful oversight from the central administration, Harvard’s ability to implement the recommendations across the University remains tempered. At an institution with a long history of decentralization, swift and coordinated action does not come easily, even on what Faust called “the serious problem of sexual assault.”

'A Vital Role'

Since the 19th century, Harvard has followed a governing approach then-President John T. Kirkland called “every tub on its own bottom”—a decentralized model that delegates power to each individual school.

But in recent years, the University has sought to centralize and rebrand itself as “One Harvard,” and addressing sexual assault was one of the first issues to test this approach. Harvard hired Mia Karvonides as its first central Title IX officer in 2013, and unveiled a University-wide Title IX policy in 2014.

In its report, the task force argued sexual assault is a problem across Harvard’s schools, necessitating a centralized effort to successfully fight it. An entire section of the report makes the case for a new position in the Office of the Provost focused exclusively on sexual assault prevention.

The task force saw this as one of its more pressing recommendations, former Provost Steven E. Hyman, who chaired the task force said in an interview in January.

“The notion of having an individual responsible was something we felt was both feasible and important, precisely because the university is large and complex, sexual assault is multifarious in the way it occurs at the different schools...and that unless there was somebody paying attention, there was a risk that the efforts would become diffused, that months or years down the road some component of the University might lose energy or a sense of urgency,” Hyman said. “We thought that it was very very important that somebody be in a position to be aware and keep the community galvanized.”

In her March email to Harvard affiliates announcing the task force report, Faust wrote, “the position recommended by the task force will serve a vital role.”

Still, despite these strong urgings, the Provost’s office still has not created such a position and has no plans to do so 11 months after the report’s release. Instead, Deputy Provost Peggy Newell says she has taken on the duties that would fall to such an administrator, in addition to her typical workload. OSAPR and the Title IX Office were undergoing significant expansion at the time the task force report came out, and Newell said she was wary of redundancies.

“We were trying to figure out who’s already doing some of the things the task force is hoping that we’re going to do, and then we needed to figure out how to make the other things happen on an ongoing basis,” she said in an interview. “They were exactly correct that somebody needs to pay attention to this and somebody needs to make sure these things happen, because when everybody’s responsible, nobody’s responsible, and you do need to have somebody making sure it’s actually happening.”

While Newell has worked closely with various administrators, coordinating the web of related offices across the University remains challenging. The Title IX Office and the 55 Title IX coordinators across the individual schools work on prevention efforts, though Timothy J. Whelsky, an Associate Dean and Title IX coordinator at the Divinity School, said the coordinators have had “not much” direct contact with Newell. Their channel to the central administrators is through monthly meetings with the University’s Title IX Officer—now William D. McCants, who replaced Karvonides after her departure in January.

Mia Karvonides, Harvard's first central Title IX officer, left the University earlier this year.
Mia Karvonides, Harvard's first central Title IX officer, left the University earlier this year. By Madeline R. Lear

Representative from the Office of Sexual Assault of Prevention and Response often attend these meetings, OSAPR director Alicia Oeser said. Karvonides and Oeser also met monthly, a tradition McCants said he will continue.

But gathering all of these administrators in one room has not happened yet, according to Newell.

In its report, the task force suggested that the Provost’s Office create a working group to convene administrators “to share and discuss educational programming and initiatives.”

“Currently, administrators trying to create and promote educational tools are not always aware either of the work that has been done elsewhere or of which tools have proved to be most effective,” the task force wrote.

The Provost’s Office has not established such a working group. “I’ve met individually with most of the people who would be on such a working group, but we haven’t yet brought them together, other than through the Title IX coordinators,” Newell said. “We probably will create such a group, we just haven’t done it yet because I think it’s important when you launch a group like that, you want to launch it in a way that gives it the greatest chance of being successful and having the best possible impact.”

With this degree of separation between the Provost’s Office and the schools, central administrators are sometimes not aware of initiatives at certain schools. The task force’s report devotes seven of its 20 pages to improving prevention efforts at College, but Newell said she did not know about specific plans of action College working groups have already developed. She also said she did not know who was tasked with overseeing implementation of recommendations relating to the Houses.

Faust described the Provost’s administrative structure as “an evolving question.” But Newell said the Provost’s office has no intention of appointing such an administrator, at least for now.

“For the time being, it’s going to continue to be my responsibility,” Newell said. “At some point in the future, if we determine we’ve done this analysis and we’ve talked to all the schools, if we determine we needed somebody else to do this we could certainly do that. But as long as what the task force wanted to get done is getting done, and as long as all of our other initiatives are moving forward, and we’re doing what needs to be done, that may not be the best use of a position.”

'Differentially Speedy'

The degree and speed with which schools have moved forward has varied widely.

The Law School revamped its orientation program to incorporate small-group trainings, nine schools launched specialized versions of an informational app called Thrive@Harvard, the Divinity School expanded its Peer Advocates program, and the Graduate School of Education added sexual assault prevention workshops for educators throughout the year, among other measures.

Some schools, though, have not adopted many of the task force’s recommendations, particularly those calling for additional resources and administrative support for BGLTQ students.

While many Title IX coordinators and spokespeople across Harvard’s graduate and professional schools pointed to the activity BGLTQ student groups on their campuses, only the College and Medical School have hired specific BGLTQ administrators. Dental school students can access the Medical School resources, and the Graduate School of Education has a student intern dedicated to BGLTQ affairs. Other schools, such as the Kennedy School and the School of Public Health, have provided no additional sexual assault prevention resources to BGLTQ students.

In keeping with their relatively hands-off approach thus far, central administrators have not set deadlines for enacting sexual assault prevention measures.

“The task force had these recommendations about you should have these modules, and they recommended that they be mandatory,” McCants said. “That being the case, though, we want to defer to those who provide the learning and the discovery as to how best to implement that. So it wouldn’t be a ‘this all must happen by this date’ kind of thing.”

Schools must submit an annual report with progress updates at the end of the academic year, and Faust said that she will hold schools accountable if change does not happen fast enough.

“The schools have been differentially speedy, or not, about implementing some of these things,” Faust said. “We will call them to account and say ‘where is this, has it moved forward enough,’ if schools turn out to be unduly slow.”

After releasing its report, the task force disbanded. The task force insisted that feedback and accountability would be crucial to ensuring progress as its members would not be involved in implementation.

“We had very explicitly recommended that there be a body to evaluate progress periodically,” Hyman said, suggesting a group like the one currently examining the University’s Title IX policy.

No such body exists, but Newell is considering how to measure whether the recommendations the University and its schools have adopted are working

“We’ve been talking about how we will look at the effectiveness of our own programs,” Newell said. “It’s really important when you create an educational program, you do your best to create something that you think is going to have an impact on people, but until you kind of assess that, you don’t know how effective you’re being… there have to be ways of testing to see if you’re having an impact, so we’re working on that.”

'Depended on the School'

In addition to the logistical challenges of coordinating efforts across Harvard’s schools, central administrators have intentionally granted schools substantial independence in an effort to remain sensitive to the schools’ distinct environments. This has meant that adopting recommendations—particularly relating to education and training—is essentially voluntary.

“Students have different experiences here and are likely to respond differently to different opportunities, ” Faust said in an interview. “The College is obviously overwhelmingly residential, with everyone in a very close geographical location 24/7. That’s not so true of other schools, and so asking what suits their culture and what is most likely to be effective within the parameters of what their students experience has been an important part of allowing for difference while making sure we coordinate across.”

This has meant that Title IX coordinators must seek to both standardize the trainings they develop while also tailoring them to the various populations they serve. For example, the College rolled out an online training module in September, and the Title IX office and Title IX coordinators are working to adapt it for some of the graduate and professional schools. The modules will retain some shared information, such as the University’s Title IX policy, but each school will customize it to reflect their students’ experiences.

Students line up to sign a petition in support of demands to overhaul Harvard's sexual assault prevention programs at a rally in 2015.
Students line up to sign a petition in support of demands to overhaul Harvard's sexual assault prevention programs at a rally in 2015. By Sidni M. Frederick

Oeser said that OSAPR tailors its in-person trainings to specific groups or schools, and this degree of specificity is important for reaching quite different populations.

But these trainings are only mandatory for incoming students during orientation at every school, not on a yearly basis, despite the task force’s insistence.

Only the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Business School have effectively mandated annual sexual assault prevention training by tying completion of their online program to registration. The Divinity School, Medical School, and Dental School plan to follow suit next academic year. While the module the College administered in the fall was billed to students as “required,” 67 percent of students completed it and the remaining 33 percent faced no penalties. The rest of Harvard’s schools have taken no action to require annual training for returning students since the task force report.

Schools and groups have to call OSAPR in to lead trainings, meaning they actively opt-in to the programming.

“We have contact with all the schools, and then the extent of programming has really depended on the school,” Oeser said.

For Hyman, though, instituting mandatory annual training is a “perfect example” of the need for central oversight. According to his research, one-time orientation trainings are “necessary but not sufficient.”

“Orientation is a complex time for students when they are concerned about many many issues, and while it’s a great introduction, for us to really feel that we have provided the necessary training and background, it would require what i call metaphorically ‘booster shots,’” Hyman said. “One of the reasons we wanted the Provost’s office to have responsibility was precisely to make sure that these kinds of recommendations that are very well grounded in the research literature don’t get forgotten or left behind.”

When asked if central administrators would ever require schools to conduct mandatory annual training, Faust replied, “We certainly will work with schools to push them towards fulfilling the recommendations of the task force.”

Variation between schools abounds not only in their students and environments, but also in the resources available to them.

While Whelsky said he considers the progress of implementation to be on target, funding the initiatives the task force called for is more challenging—particularly for smaller schools like the Divinity School. Central administrators, he said, should intervene more actively to ensure equity across schools.

“When it comes to the report and how those recommendations play out, I think there needs to be more concrete plans for how the center is going to support the schools in those initiatives,” he said. “This loops back to the resources issue—not every school has the same capacity and resources to be able to implement those recommendations, however willing they are too do so or how laudable they are, at the same rate and in the same way.”

Starkly varying sizes and alumni bases translate into significantly different financial realities—the Graduate School of Design, one of Harvard’s smaller schools, set its capital campaign goal at $110 million, compared to the Business School’s $1.3 billion goal, for example.

“The problem I think can be in the disparate resources across those communities,” Whelsky said. “The opportunities and options available to places like the Business School are very different, both in the size of the community and the resources, than they would be for a place like the Design School.”

In trying to act on the task force’s recommendations, Whelsky said “the lack of equitable resources is especially a tough thing for the Divinity School,” which enrolled only 323 students in the 2015-2016 academic year.

As a result of Harvard’s decentralized model, Faust said central administrators consistently grapple with funding disparities across schools.

“This is a constant in our ‘every tub on its own bottom’ universe, and I try to combine targeted help from the center on certain of these issues with help for the schools to figure out how they can afford to do what they want and need to do,” she said in an interview.

Reflecting on sexual assault prevention efforts to date, Hyman emphasized the need for sustained attention to what he described as a “serious chronic disease.”

“We would be naive to think that we could ever once and for all do something about sexual assault,” he said. “So we have to be vigilant about changing culture, changing mores, changing student populations over time.”

—Crimson Staff Writer Hannah Natanson contributed reporting for this story.

—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.

Student LifeCentral AdministrationCollege AdministrationGraduate School of DesignHarvard Business SchoolHarvard Divinity SchoolDrew FaustUniversityMia Karvonides