As Harvard’s Title IX Office splits into two separate offices in response to “community feedback” about the University’s response to sexual assault on campus, some student activists and professors question whether that change will lead to substantive improvements.
Under the new system, Bill D. McCants will lead the Office of Dispute Resolution. While McCants will oversee investigations into sexual harassment complaints, Nicole M. Merhill—who took the helm of the Title IX Office last week—will work on education and providing support for those who have experience sexual assault.
Before, the Title IX Officer oversaw both educational efforts and adjudication processes for complaints. The change aims to relieve some of the administrative burden on the Title IX Officer and allow that office to focus more on training and sexual assault prevention efforts.
“This is a change being made in response to feedback from the community and a desire to enable the Title IX Office to expand its menu of trainings and educational opportunities across the University,” Vice Provost Peggy Newell said in a statement.
But some students and professors say that the changes appear to be more symbolic than substantive. While the reform separates the Title IX office and ODR in name and function, their staffs share a space and both McCants and Merhill report to Newell.
“In many ways, it seems to be more about optics than about function,” said Katherine Leung, a third-year Law student and co-president of the Harassment Assault Law-Student Team.
Concerns about the separation between different stages of Harvard’s response to sexual assault complaints are not new. In 2014, 28 Law professors sharply criticized the University-wide Title IX procedures when they took effect, arguing in an op-ed in the Boston Globe that these procedures put “the functions of investigation, prosecution, fact-finding, and appellate review in one office.”
Law professor Janet Halley, who signed the letter, called the new structure “window dressing.”
“It does not provide either neutrality or independence of decision-makers handling particular cases,” Halley said. “The Law School procedures show how to do that, and at some point the University is going to need to move to a structure like those."
The Law School eventually adopted its own set of procedures for handling Title IX complaints, granting investigative power to an independent investigator, allowing parties to request a hearing in front of an outside adjudicator, and directing appeals to faculty on its Administrative Board.
Before last week, the Title IX Office oversaw both the investigative and appeals processes for the rest of the University. Under the new central structure, McCants will head the investigative arm under ODR, and Merhill will appoint faculty members and administrators from a standing committee to hear appeals.
Still, McCants and Merhill are Harvard employees, not third-party actors, who report to the same central administrator. With the same set of administrators retaining oversight of adjudication and appeals, Law professors and activists alike worry that these processes may not be impartial.
“From our end, what we’re really concerned about is the experience of survivors, and what survivors basically tell us is that there really is no opportunity to appeal if you feel that the Title IX Office has mishandled your case,” Jessica R. Fournier ’17, a member of Our Harvard Can Do Better, said. “This is a step forward, but there needs to be an effort to create a really independent appeals process.”
University spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga wrote in a statement that the University’s process promotes neutrality.
“From the outset, the Title IX Office and ODR have been committed to neutrality and thoroughness in investigations, as informed by the federal and state laws and Harvard community values that underlie our Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy and Procedures,” DeLuzuriaga wrote.
A University committee led by former interim Dean of the College Donald H. Pfister is currently reviewing the Title IX policy and procedures based on input from affiliates across the University. The appeals process is “among the items on their agenda for future meetings,” deLuzuriaga wrote in a statement.
Meanwhile, with her attention turned primarily to education, Merhill has pledged to complete online training modules tailored to each of Harvard’s schools by July 1.
Fournier expressed optimism about the new structure’s to improve education efforts.
“It’s a good thing insofar as hopefully now the office will not be spread so thin, as far as doing investigations and being responsible for training,” Fournier said. “I think it’s really great that the Title IX office is thinking about education and how they are going to be doing that more effectively.”
Still, activists say it is too early to determine the full impact of the changes.“I think it’s really too soon to tell,” Leung said. “I think the amount of programming put out, what that programming looks like, and how effective that programming is will tell us a lot… I think in a lot of ways this is something to watch over the next year.”
—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.
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