An unnamed male student filed a civil suit against Harvard earlier this month alleging the University discriminated against him on the basis of race and gender in its handling of a Title IX complaint that accused him of sexual misconduct.
The 42-page lawsuit, filed Oct. 15 in the United States District Court of Massachusetts, details sexual activity between the plaintiff and an unnamed female undergraduate that allegedly took place in April 2017. One month later, Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution — the University office that investigates formal Title IX complaints — informed the plaintiff he was the subject of a Title IX investigation related to the April encounter, according to the suit.
The suit alleges Harvard mishandled the inquiry that followed and discriminated against the plaintiff because he is an “African-American male.” It names the University, the Board of Overseers, the President and Fellows of Harvard College, and Office for Dispute Resolution investigator Brigid Harrington as defendants.
The suit alleges that Harvard discriminated against the plaintiff on the basis of gender because it consistently gave greater weight to his accuser’s account of events throughout its investigation. It further alleges the University discriminated against the plaintiff on the basis of race because Harrington did not discount the testimony offered by witnesses who also made racially charged comments.
Harvard spokespeople did not respond on the record to requests for comment.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff — dubbed “John Doe” throughout the document — and “Jane Roe,” the Harvard student who later filed the Title IX complaint, both attended an after-party celebrating their acapella group’s annual concert on April 1, 2017.
At the party, the two began engaging in “mutually flirtatious” behavior, the suit states.
After the party ended, Roe, Doe, and another student carried equipment back to Roe’s room. Both Roe and Doe had been drinking, though the lawsuit notes that Roe walked back to her dorm “without trouble and without assistance.” While in her room, Roe and Doe engaged in “voluntary, consensual sexual acts,” according to the suit. Doe then stayed the night.
The next morning, Roe asked Doe why he was in her bed and whether anything had “happened between them” the night before, the suit states. Doe responded that “nothing” had occurred. Roe later asked Doe again if they had had sex the night before. Doe repeated his response.
“The tone of this conversation implied that he and Roe were tacitly agreeing to never discuss it again,” the suit states.
The following day, Doe and Roe met to “clear the air.” At this meeting, Doe said he had in fact penetrated Roe with his finger and performed oral sex on her after the party. Doe maintained at the time that “both parties were willing and active participants.”
On April 27, Roe filed a complaint with the Office for Dispute Resolution alleging Doe had sexually assaulted her while she was intoxicated. On May 5, Doe received a letter from Harrington notifying him he was the subject of an ongoing ODR investigation.
Per FAS policies, once ODR opens a formal investigation into allegations of misconduct, an assigned investigator will contact the alleged perpetrator and provide them with a full list of charges. Doe’s suit alleges Harrington — who was the University-appointed investigator for the case — did not immediately provide him with a “signed and dated” copy of the complaint.
The suit also alleges the University “failed to perform a thorough and impartial investigation” into the allegations listed in the Title IX complaint. As evidence, the suit notes that Harrington conducted “only one interview” with Doe.
Doe’s attorneys also allege ODR Director William D. McCants twice declined what they say were Doe and Roe’s joint requests for informal resolution. Had Harvard chosen to resolve the complaint informally, it would have ceased investigating Doe and Roe and allowed them to settle the matter between themselves.
On Nov. 7, 2017, the College’s Administrative Board — tasked with implementing the conclusions of ODR reports on undergraduates — “determined that Plaintiff must withdraw from Harvard for a total of four (4) semesters.”
The lawsuit is not the first of its kind. Students at Amherst College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Swarthmore College have all alleged in complaints against their respective universities that administrators discriminated against them on the basis of race in Title IX investigations. None of these suits went to trial.
Doe is also not the first Harvard affiliate to level race-based criticisms against the University and its Title IX policies.
Shortly after Harvard updated its procedures for handling allegations of sexual and gender-based misconduct in July 2014, 28 Law School professors urged Harvard to reconsider the revamp. In an open letter published in the Boston Globe, the professors argued the new system does not give the accused due process. The ensuing debate eventually spurred the Law School to adopt new procedures.
Several of the 2014 letter’s signatories have since argued that Title IX procedures in general — including Harvard’s — are biased against people of color and men.
Law School Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, who signed the letter, wrote in a 2015 New Yorker article that, “if we have learned from the public reckoning with the racial impact of over-criminalization, mass incarceration, and law enforcement bias, we should heed our legacy of bias against black men in rape accusations.”
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened a similar investigation into Yale earlier this year.
—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.
—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.
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