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This Time, Harvard Listens To Student Activists

By Naomi S. Castellon-Perez
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Earlier this month, the College accepted the request of student-led activist group Our Harvard Can Do Better to update its residential community compact. This formal agreement, which the College required all students seeking on-campus housing to sign before arriving this fall, set standards for behavior to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students found in violation of the compact face non-disciplinary punishments ranging from warnings and safety education to dismissal from campus for the duration of the semester. Following recent activism, the compact now clarifies that students reporting allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment will, in standard cases, not face any repercussions as a result.

“In order to encourage information sharing and seeking support, the College will ordinarily not hold students accountable for violations of the Residential Community Compact if those violations also include allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment,” the compact now states.

We wish to give all of our thanks to Our Harvard Can Do Better. Because of their efforts, campus is a safer place; we commend their leaders’ dedication and active advocacy for the rights of students.

The College also deserves credit for listening to activists and making this timely change. The need to protect students and the entire community from the threat of COVID-19 is pressing, and the compact’s enforcement of basic social distancing requirements is necessary. But social distancing enforcement should not be policing. These sorts of exemptions in the policy are an important part of clarifying this principle, and hopefully other institutions will follow suit when considering whether to involve campus police in rule enforcement.

Ultimately, this policy change shows impressive flexibility and willingness to support students when they are most in the need of allies. The policy adjustment, however, is not flawless. The College should delete the word “ordinarily” from the amended language. No student should feel obligated to remain silent about their sexual assault due to fears of retaliation, and the compact should include clear language to this effect. Coming forward is difficult enough already, and if the word “ordinarily” gives pause to even a single victim, the College has made a vital error. The administrative desire for room to maneuver on policy enforcement is understandable, but student safety should have primacy.

While we are heartened to see this change, we are still concerned about the administration’s choices regarding response to activism more broadly. In this case, students’ requests were not very hard to execute or too far out of line with Harvard’s own preferences. Requests like fossil fuel or prison divestment, fair wages for graduate students, and other sources of campus protest have gone mostly unheeded. Willingness to listen to student voices should apply to all causes, not solely ones that align with Harvard’s beliefs.

On the bright side, this willingness to act demonstrates how anti-sexual violence advocacy has made a lasting change on campus. It was convenient for Harvard to respond to this advocacy because administrative responsiveness to sexual violence is growing, and a culture that seeks to eliminate sexual violence is taking firmer root. A few years ago, such a change might not have succeeded. The Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, the Office of Dispute Resolution, and other offices dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual assault and harassment have been hard at work, and their priorities show.

But while progress in institutional culture and priorities is encouraging, but it’s not the same as substantive reductions in sexual assault occurrences. The most recent comprehensive data we have, from October 2019, tells us that the prevalence of sexual assault didn’t fall in the four years prior. While we very much appreciate the administration’s receptiveness, this fundamental problem should continue to motivate greater urgency in these efforts.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It 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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