The federal government could still find Harvard College in violation of anti-sex discrimination law Title IX more than three years after the Office for Civil Rights first launched the probe in April 2014, according to several Title IX experts.
Since two then-undergraduates—including a member of the activist organization Our Harvard Can Do Better—filed the Title IX complaint, Harvard has overhauled its approach to sexual assault on campus, adopting a new policy and investigative process.
But federal investigators could conclude that the College is in violation of Title IX based on the policies and procedures in place when the investigation began, experts say. Some aspects of Harvard’s 2014 policies cited in the original complaint, recently obtained by The Crimson through a Freedom of Information of Act Request, were not consistent with federal guidelines.
The 38-page complaint charges that Harvard’s approach to handling sexual assault cases at the time violated Title IX. Complainants allege what they considered insufficient accommodations for students who have been sexually assaulted, inconsistent communication of University policies and resources, and misleading reporting of sexual assault statistics. They took issue with the definition of rape in the policy at the time, as well as the standard that required University investigators to be “sufficiently persuaded” an assault occurred in order to pursue disciplinary action—rather than the “preponderance of the evidence” standard set out in OCR’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter.
And an entire section of the complaint is devoted to final clubs, which the complainants describe as “predatory social spaces.”
The document also included testimonials from 10 students who had been sexually assaulted that were redacted in the copy the federal government provided to The Crimson.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in a statement this week that the University never received a copy of the complaint. Per OCR policy, though, institutions receive a letter when OCR begins investigating them. Through the investigatory process, schools are generally able to infer the content of a complaint, according to Colby Bruno, the senior legal counsel for the Massachusetts chapter of the Victim Rights Law Center.
“The school will know every single allegation that is charged against them,” she said.
The University was already in the midst of drafting a new Title IX policy when the complaint was filed, and it completed that process in 2014. The new policy defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” which means one party “did not request or invite it” and “regarded the unrequested or uninvited conduct as undesirable or offensive.” The accompanying procedures for investigating cases of such harassment now use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, the lower standard of proof favored by OCR and the 2014 complainants.
Over the ensuing years, former University Title IX officer Mia Karvonides created and grew the central Title IX office—which administrators restructured last spring—and took steps to publicize Title IX resources across campus. And Harvard has begun implementing the recommendations of a University-wide task force on sexual assault prevention, albeit unevenly.
Any changes in practices or resources, though, will likely go unremarked in the OCR findings, National Women’s Law Center Senior Counsel for Education Adaku Onyeka-Crawford said.
“The investigation centers in on the point in time at which the complaint was filed,” she said. “OCR is looking at what procedures were in place at that time, and then if the investigation takes longer and policies change, that doesn’t change the fact that there may have been a violation in 2014.”
If OCR determines that a school is not in line with the law, investigators propose that the institution negotiate a voluntary agreement to bring its policies into compliance with Title IX. Harvard Law School, which OCR found to be noncompliant with Title IX in 2014, opted to enter into such a resolution agreement.
But if a school declines to take part in this process, they risk losing federal funding—although the federal government has never withheld funds for this reason to date, according to Bruno and Onyeka-Crawford.
“The resolution agreement doesn’t have teeth,” Bruno said. “It’s an enforcement mechanism, but it’s a letter—and it’s a letter that comes out four plus years later, when 50 percent or more of the things have been changed.”
OCR investigators came to campus in the fall of 2014 to conduct a series of interviews. In an emailed statement Thursday, members of Our Harvard Can Do Better declined to disclose whether they have communicated with investigators since then.
Department of Education spokesperson Jim Bradshaw declined to comment on the progress of the investigation, which he said is ongoing. “As a policy, OCR does not discuss the details of its current investigations,” he wrote in an email this week.
Bruno said OCR investigations often drag on for years—one looking into a complaint she worked on against Tufts University lasted four.
“They drag on so long that it no longer benefits an individual complainant to file—unless the complainant is interested in the grand scheme of the policy,” Bruno said. “If the complainant is interested in individual remedies, then filing a Title IX complaint with OCR is futile.”
The two students who filed the complaint—and as well as the 10 students who provided testimony—have likely since left Harvard. And some of the charges in the complaint have essentially become moot as the University has reformed its practices.
But Our Harvard Can Do Better members Amelia Y. Goldberg ’19, Sarah M. Ryan ’20, and Julia M. Huesa ’20 pointed to several grievances in the complaint that Harvard has yet to address—specifically, the need for additional accommodations for students who have been sexually assaulted, the lack of “affirmative consent” standard, and adhering to the 60-day timeline for investigations.
A committee chaired by Biology professor and former Dean of the College Donald H. Pfister has been reviewing the current policy since Jan. 2016. Last spring, Pfister said the group had discussed the “affirmative consent” standard.
As the federal probe continues, though, federal Title IX guidelines could change under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who announced last week that she intends to review existing policies. Onyeka-Crawford said that current OCR investigations should, theoretically, continue as usual.
Goldberg, Ryan, and Huesa said that a decision by DeVos to scrap the 2011 Dear Colleague letter should not lessen the University’s duty to mitigate sexual assault.
“Even if Betsy DeVos rejects these guidelines, Title IX remains federal law, and it is our understanding that Harvard has an obligation under this law to improve its policies and practices regarding sexual and gender-based violence,” they wrote in a statement.
Pfister said his committee is watching federal developments “closely.”—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.
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