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Columns

Title IX Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?

Boston: Education’s Capital City

Students plastered articles from The Crimson on the John Harvard statue on Jan. 24, highlighting John L. Comaroff's controversial presence on campus. The display came a day after a student walkout during Comaroff's first class of the semester.
Students plastered articles from The Crimson on the John Harvard statue on Jan. 24, highlighting John L. Comaroff's controversial presence on campus. The display came a day after a student walkout during Comaroff's first class of the semester. By Joey Huang
By Joseph W. Hernandez, Crimson Opinion Writer
Joseph W. Hernandez ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a double concentrator in Government and Sociology in Adams House. His column, “Boston: Education’s Capital City,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

On Feb. 8, 2022, three graduate students sued Harvard University, alleging that the school overlooked years of sexual harassment and retaliation from professor John L. Comaroff.

According to the plaintiffs’ filing, in response to sexual harassment by Comaroff, one of his advisees “reported the harassment to the University’s Title IX Office. Yet, on information and belief, Harvard chose not to investigate these reports. The University instead stood by while the abuse continued unchecked.”

The Title IX office was not the only powerful group that seemed to favor the alleged perpetrator’s side.

Comaroff has denied all allegations of wrongdoing. Days prior to the court filing, 38 faculty signed on to an open letter publicly questioning the sanction Harvard had imposed on Comaroff. They described knowing Comaroff as “an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen.”

Soon after, 35 of the 38 professors retracted their signatures, saying they “failed to appreciate the impact” of their initial letter.

Though Comaroff is currently on medical leave, the University allowed him to teach a class as recently as spring of 2023, which more than 100 undergraduates walked out of. He is also slated to teach two more courses in the upcoming spring semester.

The experiences described by the three graduate students in their pursuit of justice are horrific. Yet they are far from alone in their challenges navigating Title IX. The handling of the Comaroff case is part of a broader pattern of inadequate responses to sexual harassment beyond our University, enabled by dysfunctional federal sexual harassment law.

Tears in Title IX

Beyond the immediate issues of prestige, tenure, and power dynamics present in the Comaroff case, it is clear that the Title IX system, although aiming to protect against sexual harassment, provided a woefully inadequate justice system for those mentioned in the case. Furthermore, Title IX as a whole does not satisfactorily serve survivors. For many students, the process can feel impossible to navigate.

Cases that span multiple schools can be particularly difficult. For example, one Harvard student said that, after filing a Title IX case in 2019 at Harvard against an MIT student who she said groomed and coerced her into sexual activity on MIT’s campus, she was instructed to take her case to MIT’s Title IX office.

There, she felt completely alone as she navigated the process with little support in an unfamiliar university. Because her case was being handled at another institution, she felt that she had no power to ask for better communication, resources, or transparency, she told The Crimson. She felt she was “fighting the whole institution, rather than one person.”

According to the student, her case was ultimately dismissed, as MIT stated that her allegations, even if true, would not constitute a Title IX violation.

This is far from the only major failure of sexual harassment policy. As of the amended 2020 Title IX process, colleges may only formally respond to reports of off-campus sexual harassment occuring in settings where “the school exercised substantial control over the respondent and the context in which the alleged sexual harassment occurred” such as a school field trip — or in “off-campus buildings owned or controlled by a student organization officially recognized by a postsecondary school, such as a building owned by a recognized fraternity or sorority.”

Notably, this policy excludes final clubs, Harvard’s selective, historically single-gender social organizations. Since 1984, final clubs have been unaffiliated with the University, following an administrative push to become co-ed.

Horrifically, a 2016 University report found that 47 percent of surveyed Class of 2016 women participating in these clubs had experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact” at some point in their college career — 16 percentage points higher than that of graduating women at large.

This report embodied the two concerns — of sexual assault and gender inequity — that moved College administrators to sanction members of final clubs and single-gender Greek organizations in 2016, although these sanctions were later dropped due to a Supreme Court decision on sex discrimination.

In addition, survivors who chose to undertake the Title IX process are not simply guaranteed access to advocates who can provide legal guidance, making them vulnerable to abuse in the process even when legal protections exist.

One Princeton student said, “If he said I was known for sleeping around and being slutty, they were allowed to ask if it was true… even though by law they couldn’t make a decision based on past sexual history.”

Furthermore, Title IX does not apply to students outside of the United States, which notably includes American students attending study abroad programs. While schools are not wholly barred from responding to such cases, they are precluded from doing so with the Title IX process.

But as the experiences of survivors here illustrate, a university is often far from an impartial arbiter.

Broken to the Core, and by Design

In the cases outlined above, it appears that universities prioritized the school’s reputation over true justice for survivors.

It figures that this is the kind of administrative behavior that the Title IX system breeds. Sexual violence on campus reflects poorly on a university, making Title IX cases a threat to the university’s reputation. Thus, universities are incentivized to minimize every last one of their own cases — conflicting with an interest in pursuing justice.

Federal Title IX was not designed with sexual harassment in mind, and it shows. The law originated as a 1972 amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting sex discrimination within most federally funded educational programs.

Only in 1992, two decades after the initial passage of the law, did a Supreme Court case expand Title IX’s “sex discrimination” scope to cover sexual assault and rape.

In 2001, national guidance was released on what constitutes sexual harassment under Title IX and how institutions must respond to such allegations. This guidance on institutional response was expanded in 2011 and 2014. In 2011, the Department of Education also explicitly warned universities that, should they fail to investigate cases of sexual violence, they would risk their federal funding.

This history of slow inaction on building up and communicating Title IX parallels the current horrific consequences of this system as experienced by survivors. Over 50 years past the law’s passage, it is abundantly clear that Title IX is irreparably poor at combatting sexual violence in higher education.

How Do We Fix It?

A law like Title IX prohibiting gender-based discrimination is good to have on the books. Still, sexual harassment in higher education deserves more legal attention than a tag-along on a discrimination law.

We cannot successfully address the issue on campus with a law that never once explicitly mentions sexual violence in its text. Yet that is precisely what Title IX attempts to do.

To protect survivors from university conflicts of interest, investigations must be independent. But this cannot absolve universities from responsibility.

So long as issues of sexual harassment persist on campuses nationwide, universities must be the ones to fund both investigations and the protection of survivors — even going so far as to provide legal aid.

It’s simple: When a complaint is made, survivors deserve immediate protection. They deserve to be able to attend class, live, and eat far from their alleged abusers; this requires the direct involvement of the university. Further, they deserve help navigating the process of pursuing justice — something the current system does not guarantee.

Even if no one is ever found guilty through Title IX, no ruling should prevent a survivor from accessing protection based on their own experiences.

The bar for protecting survivors should not be conflated with the legal bar for punishment. After all, according to federal government reports from the last decade, only an estimated 2.8 percent of sexual assaults ever result in felony conviction. Instead, protection should be offered the second a student goes forward with a complaint.

The path to a better Title IX system is far from easy, but that cannot discourage change. As some survivors know all too well, Title IX often works for universities instead of survivors. An improved system should protect the survivors whose lives have been forever changed by their experiences — not universities who already hold all the power.

Joseph W. Hernandez ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a double concentrator in Government and Sociology in Adams House. His column, “Boston: Education’s Capital City,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

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