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Title IX Policy Review Committee Produces Report for Bacow

Year in Review - Pfister: Talk
Donald H. Pfister, chair of Harvard's Title IX policy review committee.

Three years after its inception, Harvard’s Title IX policy review committee has produced an “interim” report of findings and recommendations, according to Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Professor Donald H. Pfister, the committee’s chair.

Former University President Drew G. Faust created the committee in 2015 when Harvard continued to face criticisms of its policy and procedures on sexual misconduct after it overhauled them in 2014. Title IX is a federal policy that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and it underlies the school’s policies and procedures for handling sexual misconduct.

Faust tasked the committee with examining how Harvard implements its sexual assault policies, analyzing data on investigations, and potentially recommending policy changes. The committee, comprised of faculty from across the University and undergraduate and graduate student representatives, worked over the course of several years largely under the radar, evaluating the University’s practices regarding sexual misconduct and typically providing feedback directly to relevant administrators.

But after sexual misconduct allegations against prominent Harvard professors surfaced last spring — and as the #MeToo movement swept the country — Pfister said Faust expanded the group’s purview to address power dynamics in faculty relationships and other issues.

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The new report — which has not been made public — contains findings and recommendations on both the initial charges and the added tasks, Pfister said. He added that the group particularly considered how the University can build a Title IX system that students trust.

“One of the big issues of all of this is thinking about trust and how to build and create an atmosphere where there's trust both in the people and in the system,” he said.

The report was not ready in time for the conclusion of Faust’s tenure at the end of June, but it reached University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s desk after he assumed the role. Pfister said it will be up to Bacow whether to release it to the University as a whole.

University Spokesperson Melodie Jackson wrote in an emailed statement that Bacow now has the report and is considering next steps.

“President Bacow has received the interim report, and he plans to consult with others across the university, including students, as he gives careful consideration to the report and the best next steps for the University,” Jackson wrote.

She did not respond to questions about whether Bacow has reviewed the report yet or intends to release it publicly.

Pfister said one portion of the report addresses power dynamics between senior faculty and students or faculty members of lower rank. Concerns arose about these skewed dynamics in spring 2018 when 18 women came forward and accused Government Professor Jorge I. Dominguez of acts of sexual misconduct spanning decades. In May, The Crimson reported that Economics Professor Roland G. Fryer was also under investigation for sexual misconduct and had been barred from his lab.

Pfister said the committee recommended that the University inform faculty about how to conduct relationships with each other in a professional setting.

“One of the things that we did was a survey across the schools: what's the message that the school is giving to their faculty about appropriate interactions,” he said. “We found that sometimes they were hard to find — these guidelines — and sometimes they were . . kind of inconsistent across the schools so we made some suggestions about that.”

University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 announced in the spring that an online Title IX training module will be mandatory for all faculty this year.

Administrators also mandated Title IX training — offered online or in person — for all College students. The training saw a 100 percent completion rate after it was tied to course enrollment for the first time this year. The University’s Title IX Office also created a new brochure teaching faculty how to handle Title IX violation disclosures brought to them, according to University Title IX Officer Nicole M. Merhill.

Merhill said new Title IX initiatives stem from feedback from a wide range of sources including the policy review committee, feedback forms at the end of online training modules, and surveys.

“When we’re developing resources across campus it’s a collaborative effort,” she said.

The policy review committee also focused on how to address actions that fall in the Title IX policy’s gray areas, Pfister said. Gray areas are situations that may not qualify as Title IX violations but might still cause “atmospheres that aren’t healthy” and warrant further examination, he said. He said the committee suggested creating workshops and trainings to promote intervention before incidents occur.

Pfister said the committee has also discussed potential Title IX guideline changes from the federal government. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced last fall that she was revoking some Obama-era Title IX guidance, and in late August a set of revised rules was leaked to the press. DeVos has yet to release the official rules, but if they are anything like the preliminary set, they could force significant changes to Harvard’s existing Title IX policies and procedures.

Pfister said that when — not if — there are changes at the federal level, the committee would take them up and determine how they might impact the University's policies. For this reason, Pfister said the committee will continue its work, even after producing this report.

“I think the work of the committee is going to be ongoing because of this shifting sand that any changes in the legislation or the recommendations that come down from Betsy DeVos will have to be looked at and evaluated,” he said.

The report also addressed how the architecture of new construction projects across the University might impact the sexual climate on campus, how phone apps might be used to connect students with Title IX resources, and how to build peer support systems, Pfister said.

Though the committee only produced this report recently, Pfister said the group does much of its studying and recommending on a rolling basis.

“We are given no deadlines, we're not told you have to report on ‘X’ date,” he said. “As we talk good ideas can surface and those good ideas can be taken home and be implemented or thought about for implementation.”

One such proposal recommended a shift in the language used in Title IX investigation reports. Pfister said the committee read a number of anonymized reports in the early stages of its tenure and suggested the Title IX officers make an effort to clarify the reports’ language and refrain from using highly legalistic phrases.

Pfister said the committee was scheduled to hold its first meeting of the semester this week, but that two of its four student seats may not be filled in time. The committee currently consists of Pfister, faculty representatives from eight of Harvard’s schools, Deputy Provost Peggy E. Newell, and two students — a graduate and undergraduate student.

—Staff writer Jamie D. Halper can be reached at jamie.halper@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @jamiedhalper.

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