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If Harvard Wants Culture Change on Sexual Violence, It Must Do Its Part

By Sanika S. Mahajan and William M. Sutton
Sanika S. Mahajan ’21 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Mather House. William M. Sutton ’23 lives in Lowell House. They are both members of Our Harvard Can Do Better.

Harvard would love for us to believe that it is doing everything it can to fight sexual assault and harassment. Administrators routinely boast that Harvard employs more than 50 Title IX coordinators and emphasize their immediate opposition to the Department of Education’s new Title IX regulations. Released in May, the change increased the burden of proof and barriers to reporting sexual violence at the federal level, and Harvard seized this opportunity to seem committed to survivors in comparison.

However, Harvard students, especially survivors of sexual violence, know there are major cracks in Harvard’s prevention and response to sexual violence. We see these cracks in the allegations of sexual harassment in the Anthropology and Government departments that were overlooked for years, in the severe understaffing of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, and in Harvard’s continued refusal to implement an affirmative consent policy, under which only a clear and continual “yes,” communicated verbally or physically, would count as consent.

As organizers with Our Harvard Can Do Better, an undergraduate group of survivors and allies working to dismantle rape culture at Harvard, we are all too familiar with these gaps. We are consistently told that sexual assault is not a Harvard problem, it’s a student culture problem. Administrators have suggested they don’t have a magic wand to just make this go away and love to remind us we all collectively bear the responsibility for community standards — while doing little to fulfill their end of the deal.

Student organizers and survivors are thus forced to bear disproportionate responsibility, with little to no institutional support from administrators in power. We fight tirelessly to make it easier for Harvard to protect us, and in return we are shut out, met with closed-door meetings, murky external reviews, and zero transparency. The real “culture” at Harvard is one of silence and opacity surrounding sexual assault and harassment. If Harvard wants culture change, it must stop putting the onus on students and survivors and be an active participant.

We have worked nonstop to teach Harvard how to do just that. This summer we partnered with dozens of other student organizations to deliver a letter of demands, signed by over 1,000 Harvard affiliates, to the University administration. The letter contained proposals for Title IX policy change in light of the new federal rules, as well as proposals for prevention and increasing transparency.

This letter was the result of the exact kind of community action that Harvard believes is necessary to fight sexual misconduct. We sent it to University Title IX Officer Nicole M. Merhill, University President Lawrence S. Bacow, Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, and Office for Dispute Resolution Director William D. McCants. But beyond the Title IX office, no other Harvard administrators publicly acknowledged the letter’s existence. We handed Harvard an instruction manual on supporting survivors in the wake of federal overhaul — one formed from active community participation — and they failed to act on it.

While the new policy announced in August did make good on some of the demands, it was conspicuously silent on others. Harvard acted where it was convenient, keeping existing standards, continuing current policies where possible, and adding some protective measures during survivor cross-examination, but it balked at more substantive changes.

Perhaps most notably, unlike many of its peer institutions, the new policy failed to adopt a definition of affirmative consent, despite years of student activism. The new policy’s description of consent is a confusing jumble of words: “agreement, assent, approval or permission.” Each of these descriptors carries a distinct connotation — for example, “agreement” implies mutual decision-making, while “permission” could easily be interpreted as passivity or a lack of resistance. And “assent,” depending on the context, can actually refer to somebody who cannot legally give consent — and the University of Pennsylvania’s policy, for example, differentiates between the two concepts.

The University has also been silent on proposed community changes such as increasing transparency and student input during the drafting of new Title IX policy and increasing funding for OSAPR, which now has only four staff members for the entire institution. A well-funded and fully-staffed OSAPR could provide community-based, trauma-informed, restorative, educational, preventative, and healing resources that serve all members of the community and create a holistic response to harm. But Harvard did not announce the two recent OSAPR departures, including that of Director Pierre R. Berastain Ojeda ’10, nor has it shown any intention of promptly filling the vacancies — effectively downsizing the office without so much as a word.

We wish we could say we were surprised, but Harvard has a long history of responding to the hard work of survivors and advocates with blame displacement, poor communication, and gaslighting. In 2018, administrators refused to allow us to distribute resources on sexual violence to admitted students at Visitas registration, saying it was already an “overwhelming time.” We had to resort to mass emails and Facebook group posts instead. We have also been fighting for affirmative consent since 2012, facing administrators who we felt trivialized the proposal or made it seem unrealistic. Yet this August, Title IX officers were still asking us what kind of standard students want, as if we have not been clarifying this for years.

Time and again, our activism is unreciprocated and met with demands that we do more labor, explain further, or adjust our expectations. We know this is a distraction from the real change that needs to be made.

This year’s required Title IX training module claims: “As a community, it is our responsibility to work together to address sexual harassment.” Yet, when students and survivors do just that — when we spend a summer having difficult conversations, digging through Title IX regulations, and combining our voices into a roadmap for the University — Harvard virtually ignores us.

As the University claims, culture change is a community effort. It will take all of us to address sexual harm and rape culture, and the University must lead the charge. It will take working with students — from Our Harvard members and Anthropology graduate students who are already pouring time and emotional energy, to survivors who are actively offering their labor to make Harvard safer. It will take commitment, investment, and substantive policy change. But unlike what Harvard still seems to think, it won’t take a magic wand.

Sanika S. Mahajan ’21 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Mather House. William M. Sutton ’23 lives in Lowell House. They are both members of Our Harvard Can Do Better.

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