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As the United States Department of Education continues to delegitimize victims of sexual violence, Harvard will need to step up more than ever.
On Wednesday, the Department of Education released new rules for the enforcement of Title IX — a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that receive federal funding. In a radical departure from Obama-era guidelines, these new regulations restrict the definition of sexual misconduct, require schools to cross-examine alleged victims when investigating sexual misconduct allegations, and prohibit schools from investigating sexual assault claims that occur at off-campus locations outside of their control. This last change effectively ties Harvard’s hands in investigating misconduct occurring in social settings like final clubs, though a stunning 2016 report found that 47 percent of senior women who associated with these spaces experienced nonconsensual sexual contact.
The effect these changes will have on sexual misconduct reporting is chilling. Redefining sexual assault as “unwelcome conduct that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” is a move that inevitably takes agency away from alleged sexual misconduct victims. Why force a victim to endure abuse long enough for it to become pervasive, and dire enough for it to become severe, before their Title IX complaint is considered valid?
We also worry about what sort of behavior the Trump administration, whose figurehead has written off his own bragging about sexual assault as “locker room talk,” would define as “objectively offensive.”
By requiring a higher severity of sexual offense to be committed before formal action can be taken and removing victim protections, these new stipulations make a flawed system much worse. Raising the barrier to entry for investigations into sexual assault claims, when many victims already do not trust the institution enough to come forward, will only serve to exacerbate the underreporting of sexual misconduct. To make matters yet worse, alleged victims will be cross-examined and allegations made in sexual misconduct cases may now be freely and publicly discussed by both parties, opening the door to the interrogation and intimidation of survivors.
We call on University President Lawrence S. Bacow to publicly condemn these regulations and to champion survivors' rights in Washington, D.C., as he has done before in opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration reforms. Harvard must use its institutional heft against these changes, which threaten the safety of many students at Harvard as well as on other campuses. This is not a fringe issue. As of 2019, one-third of Harvard undergraduate women said they experienced nonconsensual sexual contact. To fail to strongly combat these changes to how sexual assault is handled — changes Bacow agrees work against victims — would be to let students down. Further, we urge President Bacow to work with the Office of the General Counsel to circumvent and challenge how these regulations will be implemented on our campus as much as legally possible.
These changes to how sexual assault cases are handled will inevitably affect student life. Students who have experienced unwelcome sexual contact at a final club who can no longer have their complaints investigated by the Title IX office, which is far more accessible than a police station, may feel deterred from accessing resources to cope with their trauma. Fearing interrogation and the emotional toll likely associated, many victims may also choose to not report.
In response, the University should work independently to increase the availability of education, prevention, and support resources outside of Title IX proceedings. We urge Harvard to better train tutors and proctors to navigate issues of sexual misconduct and become trusted resources and advocates for survivors in light of Title IX’s gutting. The University should also continue to highlight and expand counseling for victims of sexual harassment and assault, including through RESPONSE peer counseling and Counseling and Mental Health Services, and work to improve preventative measures.
Harvard must also, as soon as possible, clarify to students and other affiliates how the new Title IX rules change existing policies and procedures. We call on the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response alongside President Bacow to outline the policy for affiliates in a clear and direct email. Students need to know what these changes mean for them.
These regulations may be the final word from the Department of Education, but their implications on campus have not been fully realized. As the Trump administration implements policies that harm sexual assault survivors, we need a University President that fiercely defends survivors’ rights and invests in sexual assault prevention, education, and counseling for all students.
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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