Harvard Reviews Sexual Assault Policy as Students Push Change

Harvard's Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library
Harvard has hired new staff to oversee sexual-assault prevention, response and resources, yet officials haven’t acted on a student referendum passed in 2012 that calls for the school to redefine its policies on consent to sex, said Ben Martin, co- president of Sexual Health Education and Advocacy Throughout Harvard College, a student advocacy group. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Columbia University, under pressure from students, is revamping its policy on sexual assaults. Next in line is Harvard University.

Harvard has hired new staff to oversee sexual-assault prevention, response and resources, and plans to revise its policies in the coming months. The university has been slow to act on a student referendum passed in 2012 that calls for the school to redefine its policies on consent to sex, said Ben Martin, co-president of Sexual Health Education and Advocacy Throughout Harvard College, a student advocacy group.

“We got an open letter on divestment in fossil fuels, but they’ve been far less open about how they’re going to act on the sexual-assault policy or the referendum,” Martin said in a telephone interview.

Students at schools across the U.S. are criticizing the handling of campus sexual violence. In the fiscal year that ended in September, the Education Department received 30 complaints claiming colleges failed to prevent or fully address campus assaults, compared with 17 a year earlier and 18 two years prior. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama established a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger said yesterday that the college will release campus sexual-assault statistics at the start of each academic year to make its procedures more transparent. Swarthmore College issued a report today on policies that have been revamped over the past several months, including increased personnel and training for students and faculty.

More Attention

“Congress and federal agencies have started paying better attention,” Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp said today in a statement. “Change does not occur in a vacuum, and our willingness to confront these tough issues and change our behavior, policies, and culture is surely contributing to a broader societal change.”

Students at Swarthmore in Pennsylvania; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire; and Occidental College and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles; have filed formal complaints with the U.S. Education Department saying they were denied equal access to education because their schools mishandled or ignored reports of sexual assault.

Student groups at New York-based Columbia drafted and signed a petition last year calling for the school to reveal how many students were found responsible for sexual assault and how they were punished. While the federal Clery Act requires colleges to count and disclose events of campus violence, it doesn’t call for information about how cases are resolved.

‘Unfortunate Challenge’

Bollinger said that Columbia has been reviewing its sexual-assault policies for months and started a website last week that details university policies. Deans have been told to hold a series of forums on how to improve policies and responses, he said in a statement yesterday.

“The problem posed by gender-based misconduct and sexual assault across the nation’s college and university campuses is both highly complex and demanding of urgent attention,” Bollinger said. “I am open to new ideas and to student concerns as we strive collectively to meet this unfortunate challenge.”

At Harvard, the student referendum calls for an affirmative statement to be considered as agreement to sex. Campus sexual-assault investigators wouldn’t equate a person’s silence with consent. Such standards are already in place at the seven other elite Ivy League schools in the northeastern U.S.

Title IX

The “affirmative consent” measure was backed in November 2012 by about 85 percent of student voters at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard, Martin said. The Undergraduate Council also voted last year in support of the referendum, and it has become the council’s official policy, he said.

The administration has responded to other referenda that passed on the same ballot, including one that called for the school’s $32.7 billion endowment to exit investments in fossil fuels, Martin said.

In March, Harvard hired Mia Karvonides to be its first Title IX coordinator. Title IX legislation bars sex discrimination at schools, and requires schools to respond effectively to reports of sexual assault. She oversees the entire university’s prevention and response efforts regarding sexual assault. Two coordinators were also appointed last year for oversight of the undergraduate college.

Gathering Feedback

Karvonides convened a working group last year to review and develop recommendations for all Harvard policies and procedures related to Title IX, Jeff Neal, a Harvard spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. Experts from Harvard and outside the university are being consulted, he said.

The working group is “expected to share the results of this process with the entire Harvard community in the coming months,” Neal said. “At that time, we expect to engage the university community -- including faculty, students and staff from all Harvard’s schools -- and gather feedback on this important topic.”

Harvard reported 31 forcible sex offenses in 2012, according to the Education Department. The college dismissed a student in November for engaging in “multiple incidents of serious and persistent unwanted sexual contact,” the Harvard Crimson student newspaper reported, citing Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. University officials declined to identify the student or provide more detail.

Dismissal severs a student’s connection with the university, and he or she can be readmitted only by a vote of the Faculty Council, according to the school’s website.

The rest of the Ivy League has adopted “affirmative consent” policies in sexual assault.

Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, says on its website that consent is defined as “positive, unambiguous and voluntary agreement to engage in specific sexual activity.” At Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, students “should presume that there is no consent in the absence of a clear and positive indication of consent,” according to its policy. The five other schools have similar policy statements.

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