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Op-Eds

Clear Action, Not Cheap Talk

University Hall
University Hall

It is almost impossible to escape news of Harvard University’s pilot “Pulse Survey,” from the University-wide email from University President Lawrence S. Bacow to the blue and red signs blanketing the campus, which proclaim: “Not everyone feels included. Let’s find out why.” “Make Harvard better.” “Your experience matters.”

These surveys come as part of a years-long effort by the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging to promote “diversity and inclusion” on campus.

Yet they also come as a slap in the face. The University has dragged its feet in confronting institutional failings regarding the prevention of sexual assault and other forms of violence, harassment, and intimidation on campus. In February, I joined over 70 fellow students, graduate and undergraduate, from the Government Department and elsewhere in calling for an external review of how 36 years of allegations against Government Professor Emeritus Jorge I. Dominguez went uninvestigated and unaddressed. A neutral, third-party investigation of the institutional failings throughout his career would go a long way towards restoring student trust in the University, and show stronger commitment to student inclusion than internal surveys.

An independent investigation would provide the students, faculty, and staff in the Government Department and across Harvard with a clear sense of went wrong from 1979 until at least 2015, what has changed since, and how those changes will prevent these kinds of abuses in the future.

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The most recent allegation in 2015 is particularly alarming as it comes after the University supposedly revamped its Title IX policies and procedures following a civil rights investigation by the Department of Education.

More than just the chance to take a quick survey, an external review would certainly make us feel that our concerns are being included in University policy, and that the experiences of survivors of sexual assault matter. It would undoubtedly make Harvard a better place.

Graduate students, faculty, and survivors have therefore requested an external review time and again over the past year. But Bacow and other members of the administration have yet to respond. A “positive response” in private has been accompanied by public silence, with suggestions that the Title IX investigation against Dominguez must conclude before the University considers an external review.

There is no clear reason why this must be the case. Regardless of what comes of the inquiry into Dominguez’s conduct, the allegations against him should have triggered an investigation long before the story surfaced in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

To be clear, a question on the “Pulse Survey” that explicitly asks about the University’s handling of cases of sexual assault is not an acceptable alternative.

The University hardly needs more evidence to justify a thorough review of how it addresses cases of sexual assault and harassment by those in positions of authority.

Let’s assume for a moment that public opinion on campus should have any role in how seriously Harvard takes these protections. Even if the “Pulse Survey” can quantify the level of (dis)satisfaction with how Harvard deals with sexual misconduct, how many members of the community have to be unhappy for the University to act? Is there any point at which the administration will feel compelled to act?

The Crimson Editorial Board has noted the troubling tendency of the University to turn to surveys again and again to give a semblance of inclusion rather than taking concrete action.

The University administration appears happy to ask us for our views so long as it does not have to inconvenience itself in responding to our criticisms.

Public opinion beyond Cambridge seems to count for much more, as threats to the University’s reputation seem to prompt effective and efficient action. Even after decades of incidents that were overlooked, it took not one but two articles in the Chronicle for the University to place Dominguez on leave.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with finding out where problems lie or “taking the pulse” of students, faculty and staff. The task force has done yeoman’s work in identifying the many areas where Harvard can improve in building a true sense of community here on campus, and the results of their work and these surveys can only help inform University policies in the future.

Yet surveys alone cannot and will not allay the concerns and mistrust of many on campus towards the administration unless coupled with change that goes beyond “fine-tuning” administrative procedures and admitting a need for “better communication.”

If the University invites somebody other than itself to be the judge of whether it adequately protects against sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination on campus, it can be a model for other institutions of higher learning that have harbored their own dark secrets and rumors for too long.

Clearly the financial costs of an independent investigation are not the problem, given the resources required to roll out the present public relations effort and maintain the necessary infrastructure for regular polling.

In the meantime, when you get to the survey’s open-ended question, call for an external review.

Andrew M. Leber is a Ph.D. student in Government at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Correction: March 16, 2019

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this op-ed incorrectly stated the headline as "Clear Talk, Not Clear Action" and has been revised to its correct headline: "Clear Action, Not Cheap Talk."

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