Sexual Assault at Harvard

“I want to know what happened in that room when they were making a decision that changed my entire life.”

Julie, an undergraduate, says she will never understand why the Administrative Board decided in its closed deliberations in the Forum Room on the third floor of Lamont Library to allow the student who sexually assaulted her to remain on campus.

Julie, who has been granted anonymity by The Crimson because she fears retaliation from her perpetrator, initially felt optimistic about the College’s response to her sexual assault. After reporting the rape, Julie felt encouraged by the responses of Harvard University Police Department and the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. Assured that there was significant evidence to build a case against the perpetrator, Julie took her case to the Ad Board.

In light of this, she said, the Ad Board’s ultimate decision not to require the perpetrator to withdraw was particularly disheartening.

Paola, another College student who was sexually assaulted on campus, also found OSAPR to be a helpful resource. Yet she expresses deep disappointment with the way that administrators respond to students coming forward with experiences of sexual assault. “They question the event so much and ask if you were in the wrong so many times that, after a while, one begins questioning if it even happened,” she writes in an email to The Crimson. Paola, who has been granted anonymity by The Crimson to protect her pivacy, decided not to pursue her case with the Ad Board in part because she knew the perpetrator.

For a growing number of students on campus, stories like Julie’s and Paola’s highlight what they describe as a disparity between Harvard’s many resources for the victims of sexual assault and the policies that govern the ways in which incidents of sexual assault are investigated and adjudicated. These critics, who include sexual assault survivors and campus activists, say that the Ad Board’s written policy language is not favorable to victims of sexual assault, and that the Ad Board’s lack of transparency about its processes intimidates students who bring their cases before the Board.

Harvard is currently conducting an ongoing review of its sexual assault policies across its various schools and has recently hired its first ever University-wide Title IX coordinator, who begins work this month. Still, some students feel that these efforts are not enough. They say that changes in the way administrators handle cases of sexual assault at the College level are progressing too slowly, and are not sufficiently responsive to student concerns.

Read more: Sexual Assault at Harvard



Sexual Assault Policy and the Urgency of Now

Sixteen students from Yale University lodged a complaint with the United States Office of Civil Rights. “Inadequate response to a long trend of public sexual harassment” bred an environment hostile to the campus’ women—a campus that is not very different in history or experience from our own. The U.S. government could determine this to be a violation of Title IX, the legislation that states, “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The stakes for Yale University were high. Not only was their reputation on the line, but worse for them, they could lose the majority of their federal funding.

In the wake of this nationally reported lawsuit, the Office of Civil Rights sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter to universities around the nation, reminding them of their responsibility to create a safe environment for learning for all students—female and male. The explicit re-delineation of expectations by the government would mean trouble for these schools if they were caught slacking: Title IX federal funding could be revoked.

“Sexual activity requires consent, which is defined as clear, unambiguous, and voluntary agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity. Consent cannot be inferred from the absence of a “no”; a clear “yes,” verbal or otherwise, is necessary.” This is the revision by Yale. This is a necessary revision that was made as late as April of last year.  This is the revision that had to be pre-empted by the threat of legal governmental action to be implemented. This is the sexual assault policy that finally leaves no room to give perpetrators the “benefit of the doubt.”

Contrast this: “Rape includes any act of sexual intercourse that takes place against a person’s will or that is accompanied by physical coercion or the threat of bodily injury. Unwillingness may be expressed verbally or physically.” This definition of rape, in all its negative connotations, is the definition provided in the Harvard College Faculty of Arts and Sciences Policy Statement on Rape, Sexual Assault, and Other Sexual Misconduct. This is the definition for the school where only seven sexual assault cases have been presented to the Ad Board in the past five years, while an average of one hundred and twenty-five have officially been recorded. This is the definition that most often leads the Administrative Board towards a “take no action” ruling because of the specificities of its language.