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Harvard Should Continue to Focus on Helping Victims

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2017. Her department is reportedly considering changes to Title IX guidance that could have serious consequences for Harvard.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2017. Her department is reportedly considering changes to Title IX guidance that could have serious consequences for Harvard. By Timothy R. O'Meara
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

On Nov. 6, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released a new set of federal guidelines under consideration that some experts say may force Harvard to alter its current Title IX policy. The proposed guidelines for handling campus sexual assault seek to increase the rights of the accused and protect colleges from greater liability by limiting the definition of sexual harassment. These guidelines have fallen under scrutiny for treating university disciplinary proceedings like a courtroom, allowing cross-examination, permitting colleges to raise the evidentiary standard for sexual misconduct, and making the definition of sexual harassment more restrictive.

Sexual assault is one of the most devastating crimes that can be inflicted upon members of our community. It is also one of the most ignored. One in five women will be sexually assaulted during her time in college and over 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report what happened to them. The stakes of this issue could not be higher, and thus we are deeply concerned by the ramifications of these new guidelines.

DeVos seems to be operating under the assumption that there is an epidemic of false allegations plaguing America. To combat this apparent crisis, her proposed guidelines will give schools the option of raising the standard of proof from a "preponderance of evidence" to a "clear and convincing" one. The Department of Education will also only hold schools accountable for responding to formally filed complaints and violations that occurred on campus.

Yet the problem with campus sexual violence was never the number of malicious students running around plotting who to accuse next. We do not mean to be flippant — stories of students’ lives ruined by false allegations are heartbreaking. Yet we also know of these stories because they are so rare and often make headlines whenever they occur. These anecdotes are used to drown out thousands of devastating stories of sexual trauma. Both stories matter. Yet DeVos is missing the proverbial forest of genuine allegations for a few crooked trees.

We are sympathetic to the concern that accused students’ due process rights have been violated. Yet we refuse to buy into the paranoia that this has reached epidemic proportions. Indeed, only between two and 10 percent of sexual assault allegations are false. There are extensive barriers which prevent victims from disclosing their assault, such as societal scrutiny, fear of reliving the assault, and investigators that blame the victim. DeVos’s proposed guidelines threaten to raise these barriers to insurmountable heights, sacrificing victims’ security to fight the too-often fictional scourge of false allegations.

Indeed, Harvard should most fundamentally prioritize the rights and safety of victims. We disapprove of the use of cross-examination in the context of University disciplinary proceedings for sexual misconduct. This would only serve to worsen the trauma of victims and put them under pressure.

Yet though we are concerned by the policies proposed by DeVos, we also know — pending a required notice-and-comment period — Harvard will have an obligation to obey them. We thus call upon the University to do everything in its power to protect students, even if this requires going above and beyond the expectations imposed upon it by the Trump administration.

For example, Harvard should set the standard of evidence for cases of sexual misconduct to be the previous preponderance of evidence. By choosing to adhere to this standard, Harvard can best balance the concerns of upholding due process and protecting survivors. Harvard should also hold itself accountable for providing academic accommodations to any survivor who requests it, even if DeVos’s standards place no such expectation on universities.

If DeVos has placed a newfound emphasis on the protection of perpetrators’ rights, then Harvard must make its commitment to survivors’ rights equally clear. These two interests must not be framed as incompatible or in conflict. Harvard now must undertake the difficult but essential task of balancing the two so that all students can freely enjoy its resources, absent the specter of sexual assault.

This staff editorial is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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