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Op-Eds

Harvard's Commitment to a Campus, World Free from Assault, Harassment

On Tuesday, the University released the results to the 2019 Association of American Universities Student Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct, in which Harvard students were asked to complete last April. The data tell a disturbing story. Sexual and gender-based harassment and assault remain a serious problem here at Harvard, and at institutions of higher education nationwide.

Since 2015, when Harvard conducted a similar survey with AAU, the prevalence of sexual assault here, and at the other participating universities, has remained largely unchanged. As members of the University leadership, we take these results very seriously, and we recognize that we have a responsibility to each and every member of the community to respond to them, and to find ways to create a safer place to learn and to work.

We are grateful to the more than 8,300 students at Harvard, and more than 180,000 students at AAU universities across the country, who took the significant step of devoting their time to respond to this survey, to ponder difficult questions, and for some, to share details of life experiences that are not easy to discuss. It’s clear from this engaged response that many students are committed to creating a better Harvard, free from sexual harassment and assault. This is what encourages us.

The enhancement of resources to serve those who experience sexual assault, and improvements in university procedures, are critical steps that Harvard must continue to take. But changes to policy and additional resources alone cannot effect the change we need to achieve our ultimate goal, which is to prevent sexual assault from occurring in the first place. This requires a concerted, collaborative effort from each of us, faculty, staff, administrators and especially students. We’re hopeful that many of you are willing to join us in this challenge. The culture at Harvard can’t change without your involvement.

Overwhelmingly, at Harvard and at the other AAU member institutions who participated in this survey, sexual assault occurs between students, usually when alcohol has been consumed, and most often on campus. At Harvard, 80 percent of incidents of sexual assault involved alcohol, while more than 75 percent of the incidents involved an offender who was a fellow student. For undergraduates, two thirds of the incidents of sexual assault reported in the AAU survey took place in on-campus housing.

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We need your help to change this culture, by letting your peers know that sexual misconduct is never acceptable, and then by finding ways to support those individuals who experience harassment or assault. Already, Harvard students participating in programs like bystander training help to drive home this point. Let’s work together to find more solutions.

Last week, in response to student input, the Title IX Office launched an online anonymous disclosure form as an additional tool for reporting an incident. This supplements the efforts of the more than 50 Title IX coordinators University-wide who stand ready to support Harvard’s students, faculty, and staff who experience sexual harassment or assault. We’re hopeful that adding an anonymous reporting option will help people share information so that we will have a clearer picture, in real time, of what is occurring and whether our interventions are making a difference. Taking such a first step may lead some to seek additional assistance.

One of the most heartbreaking realities that we learned through this survey is that, while increasing numbers of students are aware of the widespread resources we offer through our Title IX Office, the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, and Harvard’s individual schools and units, few take advantage of these resources. Students cite that the incident wasn’t “serious enough,” that they weren’t injured, that alcohol or drugs were involved, or even, that “events like this seem common” as reasons to not access any of the support services available on campus. Students, faculty, staff and University administrators need to work together to make it clear that sexual assault is unacceptable and to communicate that all sexual assault is – and will be treated as — “serious enough.” Simultaneously, we need to respect some students’ preference for seeking support from family and friends, and acknowledge the effectiveness of this approach.

The challenge of building a community where sexual assault and harassment no longer exist is vast. But this is a goal to which we must aspire. At Harvard, we consider ourselves leaders, innovators, and changemakers. When you leave here, you will have an impact on the communities where you live and work, and, as Harvard graduates, you will be in a position to make change happen. We pledge to work alongside you while you are here to build a safer community. We’re hopeful that you can further this shared commitment to creating a world free of sexual harassment and assault once you move on to future endeavors. Together, we can have an impact at Harvard and beyond.

Peggy Newell is Deputy Provost at Harvard University. Kathleen L. McGinn is a professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. They served as co-chairs of the steering committee for the Harvard Student Survey on Sexual Assault & Misconduct.

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