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Transgender Applicant Alleges in Suit Harvard Discriminated and Retaliated Against Her in Admissions Decision

Harvard Business School.
Harvard Business School. By Jason K. Thong
By Alexandra A. Chaidez and Aidan F. Ryan, Crimson Staff Writers

A transgender woman filed a lawsuit against Harvard and Office for Dispute Resolution investigator Brigid Harrington alleging the University violated Title IX law and Massachusetts laws by discriminating and retaliating against her after she reported an admissions officer for sexual harassment.

The 15-page complaint — filed Jan. 22 at the United States District Court for Massachusetts — details several instances in 2017 when the plaintiff, dubbed “Jane Doe” throughout the document, said she was sexually harassed and discriminated against on the basis of her transgender status. The complaint alleges that shortly after she reported an admissions officer for sexually harassing her, she was denied admission to Harvard Business School and the Graduate School of Education.

The lawsuit states the complainant faced “two express incidents of gender-based discrimination” that the “defendants failed to either investigate or act on.” 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.

Harrington declined to comment.

The plaintiff lays out a series of demands in the suit, asking the University and Harrington to issue a “declaratory judgment” admitting they unlawfully retaliated against her in violation of Title IX and state law. Title IX is a federal law prohibiting institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating against people on the basis of gender. The complaint names several Massachusetts laws that Harvard allegedly violated, including laws that prohibit discrimination and retaliation on the basis of gender or sexuality.

The plaintiff also asks for a “permanent injunction requiring Harvard to conduct all admissions in a manner that does not discriminate against transgender students and individuals,” legal fees and other costs, and “other and further relief” that the Court feels is necessary.

The complainant alleges that, in October 2017, a male admissions officer from the Business School forcibly kissed her at a BGLTQ open house and that the University unlawfully discriminated against her in the admissions process. According to the suit, Doe received a message notifying her that she had been denied admission to the Business School “within days” of reporting the misconduct.

A Business School admissions officer allegedly told the plaintiff in 2017 that the University had not admitted any transgender students over the past three admissions cycles, according to the complaint.

The complaint states Doe then sent an email to “various Harvard University admissions personnel” in February 2018, in which she communicated her concern that she would face discrimination as a transgender individual, referencing the comments made to her by the Business School admissions officer. Several days later, Doe received a response from the Director of Admissions at the School of Education Julia B. Deland that reminded Doe of the University's non-discrimination policy. On March 2, 2018, Doe was denied admission at the School of Education.

The lawsuit states Harvard’s “intentional and knowing refusal” to investigate the alleged incidents of discrimination was a violation of Title IX policy. The suit also alleges that the plaintiff was “retaliated against by Defendants” for reporting the incident. The suit goes on to say that the plaintiff also experienced “sexual harassment” under Massachusetts law.

The January filing is not the first time the plaintiff has tried to take legal action against Harvard for the alleged discrimination she faced. The plaintiff filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination on June 4, 2018, alleging the University discriminated against her based on gender identity.

The University requested the complaint be dismissed for lack of probable cause and alleged that the complainant was not a competitive applicant to the Business School and the School of Education, according to the January complaint.

MCAD later issued an investigative disposition that found a lack of probable cause, but the federal complaint said the MCAD disposition statement “totally failed” to sufficiently address the assault and how it violated Title IX policy. The complaint also alleges that the University refused to investigate or acknowledge the assault had occurred.

Business School spokesperson Brian C. Kenny wrote in an email that the University “does not generally comment on pending litigation” and that Harvard had not yet been served with the federal complaint, but they “can confirm” the allegations of discrimination were first raised in the MCAD investigation that was dismissed.

“Harvard Business School has stringent policies against the kind of conduct alleged in the complaint, and has thorough procedures to address it should any such behavior occur,” Kenny wrote. “Further, the School strives to attract and recruit a student population that is diverse in every dimension and to create a campus environment where every student can reach their full potential regardless of race, gender, gender identity, ethnicity, religious affiliation or sexual orientation.”

School of Education spokesperson Bari E. Walsh wrote in an emailed statement that the school is “dedicated” to recruiting a diverse set of students, faculty, and staff.

“Harvard and the Harvard Graduate School of Education have strong policies against the kind of conduct alleged in this complaint, and we have comprehensive procedures in place to address it,” Walsh wrote. “In addition, HGSE is deeply committed to fostering a campus climate of inclusion and belonging.”

Doe is requesting a jury trial for the lawsuit. Doe’s lawyer Cynthia MacCausland did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Correction: Feb. 13, 2019

Due to incorrect information included in the complaint, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Harrington is a Title IX officer. In fact, she is an Office for Dispute Resolution investigator.

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.

—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.

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