For the many Harvard students skimming through their overflowing inboxes, Dean Khurana’s announcement of Harvard’s first-ever online training module was probably not eye-catching enough to warrant a second glance. The module’s unwieldy name, “Supporting a Harassment-Free Community: What Every Student Needs to Know about Harvard’s Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy and Resources” eclipses that its completion is mandatory. Yet the program is part of the college’s recent efforts to implement annual, obligatory trainings on sexual harassment prevention and response for its undergraduates. The purpose, content, and various features of the online module merit discussion due to its implications on how to make training on the general topic of sexual harassment feel essential and empowering to students.
Based on its stated goals, the online module reads like an information package primarily intended to educate students on both the available resources and relevant policies for sexual and gender-based harassment. These descriptions, however, belie the fact that the module is very different from freshman orientation trainings or Consent Advocates and Relationship Educators’s consent workshops that were held in several houses during the last two semesters. While the latter two programs and voluntary events hosted by the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response revolve around problematic cultural notions regarding sex, this training is about the services to which students can turn after experiencing assault, including ways to seek redress for infringements of those rights. As a reminder of the resources and policies in place, the module could act as a preventative measure, but its focus leans more towards response. Therefore, the module appears to be a sensible sequel to CARE consent classes which, dealing heavily with defining consent and ways to normalize asking for consent, concluded with a simple listing of contact information of on-campus resources like Response and OSAPR.
What inspired efforts to create the module was a recognition of the need to steamroll misconceptions about available resources and policies, as the Title IX coordinator Emily Miller told the HPR, “Our goal with this online training was twofold: First, we aimed to create a shared foundation of knowledge about the landscape of resources available at the College, and second, we wanted to help students to better understand some of the key policy definitions.” The module succeeds in providing new information, such as teaching students about interim measures: adjustments like changes of housing or leaves of absence that survivors can demand from the institution to continue their education in a safe environment. The module also explains that sexual harassment includes either “unwelcome” conduct of a sexual nature that creates a “hostile environment” or “quid pro quo harassment.” Moreover, the training sheds light on perceivable areas of confusion, including which individuals do or do not hold a legal privilege of confidentiality. Students are reassured that sharing concerns with the Title IX Coordinator is not the same thing as filing a formal complaint through the Office of Sexual and Gender Based Dispute Resolution, which would potentially encourage people to reach out to Title IX more often.
Although the module sometimes spurs more questions than it answers them, such as implying that a drunk person can “welcome” sexual conduct without giving specific examples, students have the incentive to return to the information in the module in times of crises. The online training is unique in both stating Harvard’s policies verbatim and putting many relevant pieces of information in one place, using digestible language to spare students the work of researching multiple sources on their own. However, the module does not clearly indicate how the university’s policy defines consent. On the one hand, the module’s characterization of “unwelcome conduct” as a conduct that “a person did not invite or request” and regarded as “undesirable or offensive” implies a negative definition of consent. By regarding simply not saying no to be sufficient to constitute consent, such negative definition often risks accepting forced sex as consensual. At the same time, the explanation of “unwelcome conduct” is followed by a qualifying statement, “the absence of a ‘no’ does not by itself mean yes,” suggesting the affirmative definition of consent that recognizes only an explicit “yes” as consent.
While the module contains such ambiguities, the bigger concern is that it may instill false optimism in the ODR’s capacity to investigate and resolve reported violations of sex and gender-based harassment policy. Anonymous survivor accounts often underscore the college’s failures to take prompt and equitable action in harassment cases; the recent article, “It’s Me, One of Your Statistics” alone suggests that many of the University’s policies have been ineffective in practice. The author’s decision not to press charges due to the prospect of a grueling trial process suggests that uncertain or indefinite timeframes impedes litigations against sexual harassment. In fact, the module does not inform students of the full processes or outcomes of pressing charges against sexual and gender-based harassments. In her interview with the HPR, Jessica Fournier from Our Harvard Can Do Better added, “The ODR’s investigations tend to depend on resident deans, tutors, and other relevant house authorities involved in the procedures. Yet the more fundamental issue remains that there is not a centralized enough body at Harvard to ensure that students are exercising their Title IX rights.” For example, the writer of the aforementioned article had to stay in the same class with her perpetrator for the rest of the semester, bringing into question the effectiveness and reach of interim measures.
Even if learning more basic information were not to motivate students to voluntarily participate in OSAPR or CARE-led workshops, the module brings material on sexual assault to the attention of all undergraduates. Meager turnouts for voluntary sessions on issues of consent, healthy relationships, and sex culture presumably come from busy schedules or from indifference, but the idea is to roll out mandatory programs like the module to remind people of the importance of staying involved in such activities outside of their freshman year orientation. Alicia Oeser, the Director of OSAPR, commented, “The module can complement in-person training by giving everyone a baseline familiarity with the content, which may help them see the value and relevance to their own lives.”
What significantly compromises this mission, though, is the module’s opt-out option; immediately after beginning the training, students are told that they can opt-out at any point by emailing the Title IX Office if they feel uncomfortable. Of course, giving the option not to participate is imperative when dealing with the nuanced and incredibly varied experiences regarding sexual assault, reducing the risk of triggering trauma. Despite the thoughtful considerations behind it, the opt-out choice may encourage people to treat the module as a nuisance, whether or not they decide to use it. The test at the end and the 80 percent requirement would deter people from going through the module with a completely half-hearted mindset; nonetheless, a perfunctory review of the content would suffice to pass the assessment. Allowing exceptions also makes the module takes away from the university’s objective of conducting an ongoing, mandatory education throughout four years. As Basia Rosenbaum ’18, a member of CARE, told the HPR, the consent workshops were a positive development in that they “center[ed] around continuing the discussion and responding to students’ experiences as they continue in their college career,” and “workshops CARE conducts at the very beginning of freshman year are only the start of students’ experiences at Harvard.” But CARE only conducted those sessions in Leverett, Adams, and Lowell House, similarly falling short of becoming a uniform education program for upperclassmen.
For all that the module does or does not clarify, perhaps the more important aspects to consider are its reception, as well as its larger impact on student interest in college-instituted programs on sexual assault. In a sense, learning about Title IX policies—rights that one is entitled to—should have a greater appeal than, say, debating what “incapacitated” means in the context of consent, especially given the confirmed prevalence of sexual assault on campus. The module, therefore, would benefit from a greater emphasis on its unique focus as well as more engaging features or improved aesthetics. The “Student Voices” inserted here and there are clearly intended to personalize the material, but they should be more specific, longer, and more directly related to the topics at stake in order to resonate with students in any meaningful way. As Emily Miller explained, the online training’s desired outcome beyond highlighting underpublicized facts was to “serve as a springboard into in-person conversations about creating culture change and the role each of us plays in creating and maintaining a safe and healthy environment at the College and in the world.” With efforts to emphasize the relevance of sexual assault resources and policies, the module would be more likely to launch students into deeper discussions about norms and customs that perpetuate rape culture on many campuses.
Considering the difficulty of reconciling the pros and cons of the opt-out feature, it would be wise to eliminate the opt-out feature if there ends up being an unreasonable number of students not participating. One of Princeton’s eating clubs, the Charter Club, recently started requiring students to read consent pledges to enter its parties, whereas UC Berkeley has placed a hold on registration when students do not complete required sessions on sexual assault. Harvard, too, must continue to show its commitment to this movement towards adamant sexual assault prevention and response training for every year of the undergraduate experience.