Harvard | May 1, 2013 at 8:11 pm

To Reform or Not to Reform? Harvard’s Sexual Assault Policy

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From two consecutive reports of rape on Harvard’s campus last August to a rape victim’s personal account of her painful experience at Amherst College to the recent Steubenville rape trial that gained national attention—awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual assault and rape culture has increased across the nation, sparking dialogue about the importance of combating sexual violence, particularly on college campuses. In the fall, a ballot initiative in the Harvard Undergraduate Council referendum asked undergraduates if they agreed that “Harvard College should re-examine its sexual assault policies and practices.” The referendum gained overwhelming support, with 85 percent of the participating student body voting in favor of reevaluation. The organization Our Harvard Can Do Better initiated the referendum as part of its campaign to have Harvard’s sexual assault policy, which it deems unclear and detrimental to rape victims, revised.

Despite the student body’s support for reform of Harvard’s sexual assault policies, the university has portrayed itself as resistant to reform efforts. The administration’s attitude toward reform appears to be conservative and mired in bureaucracy and institutional politics, instead of open-minded and adaptable. While it is important to acknowledge the positive actions on the university’s part regarding the issue of sexual violence on campus, it is also imperative to recognize the critical reforms that need to be made to ensure students’ safety on campus.

Far from Perfect

To make Harvard out to be a ruthless place in which rape victims get no support from the university would, of course, be misleading. Harvard has multiple resources for sexual assault victims on campus, including the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, Consent Assault Awareness & Relationship Educators, Harvard Men Against Rape, and Response. After the passing of the sexual assault referendum last fall, the university created the Sexual Assault Resource Student Working Group, a committee consisting of student representatives from various campus organizations, to examine the resources for sexual assault victims on campus. In a conversation with the HPR, Response Co-directors Amanda Morejon and Gabriella Paisan argued that Harvard does in fact have its students’ best interests in mind, as demonstrated by its plethora of resources and the new working group.

One could also argue, however, that the situation at Harvard is very far from perfect. The administration has unfortunately held on to archaic tradition and established convention. For example, just before the UC referendum last fall, the administration announced its unwillingness to alter Harvard’s sexual assault policy any time soon no matter the results of the referendum, due to the need for “a great deal of further study,” according to an article in The Crimson. Even if this need for further study were a legitimate prerequisite to amending Harvard’s sexual assault policy, the university’s reluctance to implement reforms is disheartening. Moreover, the administration’s complete disregard of the referendum results and its dismissiveness toward student concerns is particularly outrageous, as it not only sends the signal to students that their voices don’t matter, but also that the university can silence their voices.

Some people may point to the new working group as an indicator of the university’s responsiveness to its students’ protests. However, the working group was not created in response to the passing of the sexual assault reform ballot initiative in the UC referendum, according to Morejon and Paisan.

The inherent structure of the working group further indicates the university’s unwillingness to actively address student concerns regarding Harvard’s flawed sexual assault policy. The committee solely focuses on evaluating the existing resources for sexual assault issues, denying participants the ability to discuss and implement policy changes. In addition, the working group has strict rules of confidentiality, establishing an air of exclusivity instead of facilitating open dialogue between students, faculty, and the administration on this critical issue that concerns everyone on campus.

With these aspects in mind, it is doubtful why the working group was established. Did the university truly wish to open discussion on the subject and engage students, to simply appease angry students by merely throwing them a bone? UC Vice President, Jennifer Zhu, explained to the HPR, “This discussion of existing resources and how we can best utilize them is important, but students also still strongly feel the lack of and need for an in-depth discussion on policy change—and this is something that needs to happen soon.”

Trailing Behind

With an administration resistant to change, how does Harvard stand in its sexual assault policies in comparison to other colleges? Sadly, Harvard lags behind other colleges in addressing student calls for reform. For instance, Harvard is the only Ivy League school that has not adopted a policy of affirmative consent.

Our Harvard Can Do Better Co-founder Pearl Bhatnagar told the HPR that “Harvard should adopt a policy of affirmative consent to ensure that miscommunication is never an excuse for rape. The institutional gesture of switching to an affirmative consent based policy, currently in use by all other Ivy League schools, will demonstrate Harvard’s commitment to a campus culture where sex is defined as mutual … consenting to certain acts does not indicate consent for others, and that consent is not implied by the absence of a ‘no.’”

Besides Princeton, Harvard is the only Ivy League school to have not adopted the “preponderance of the evidence” standard over the “sufficiently persuaded” standard when reviewing sexual assault cases, with the latter being an overly high threshold for burden of proof on the part of the victim, making it much more unlikely for rapists to be found guilty. In addition, Zhu notes that Columbia’s sexual assault policy “actually outlines a physical description that clarifies mental incapacitation relating to inability to consent to sex,” whereas Harvard’s policy does not.

Finally, Harvard’s consolidation of data on sexual assault incidents is not nearly as effective as the data collected by other schools. Bhatnagar said to the HPR, “In contrast to Harvard’s data consolidation, Yale recently took steps to synthesize a semi-annual report that updates community members with ‘descriptive’ yet anonymous ‘summaries of complaints,’ along with specific actions towards resolution taken by the Ad Board equivalent body and by Title IX coordinators.”

A Culture Shift

With backward sexual assault prevention policies, how can Harvard effectively combat sexual violence on campus? In order to effectively address the issue of sexual assault at Harvard, there must be a combination of policy reform and cultural change.

“We need a shift in culture on campus surrounding sexual assault and rape,” Zhu said. “But that needs to be facilitated and complemented by things such as policy reforms like affirmative consent policy, more productive conversation during Freshman Week and continued awareness of sexual assault education beyond our first week in college and centralization of existing data on sexual assaults from HUPD, OSAPR and AdBoard.”

It is also important to first combat the common mistaken perception that sexual assault is not a major issue on Harvard’s campus. Sarah Rankin, the Director of Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, told the HPR that results from Harvard’s bi-annual Health and Wellness survey reveal that the rates of sexual assault at Harvard match those nationwide. National data report that five to six percent of women and two to three percent of men are victims of sexual assault annually. In order to further students’ awareness of sexual assault on campus, it is important to provide sex education and sexual assault prevention training to students, not just for freshmen during Freshman Orientation Week, but for students of all years.

Public forums, education and training workshops and campus campaigns that address the issue of sexual assault can establish cultural change. In fact, efforts for such cultural change already appear to be taking place. For example, Harvard began April, which is “Sexual Assault Awareness Month,” with a kick-off event called “Confronting Sexual Violence on College Campuses” led by Dr. David Lisak.

The Bottom Line

As Morejon and Paisan believe, Harvard may indeed have its students’ best interest in mind. However, if it does, then the university should convey this sincerity by readily expressing its willingness to directly engage students in their reform efforts, rather than refusing to acknowledge the referendum results or change its sexual assault policy.

Yet, whether or not Harvard’s administration is sincere in its efforts for reform, the bottom line is this: sexual assault on campus is a pressing issue and needs to be addressed now. “We can’t wait for one or several terrible sexual assault incidents to bring a significant amount of attention to the matter to reform our sexual assault policy,” Zhu said. “Instead of being reactive, we need to be proactive. This policy impacts the lives of our fellow classmates who have been affected or will be affected by sexual assault, and I believe that if we can do better—to prevent sexual assaults, to better address them when they occur—then we absolutely should and need to do better.”

It would be a mistake to dismiss the accomplishments that Harvard has made so far in preventing and responding to sexual assault on campus. Harvard should be lauded for its plethora of resources, including OSAPR, CAARE, HMAR, and Response. The newly created working group is also praiseworthy since it will help the university maximize the efficacy of its resources. At the same time, it is also critical that the university not overlook the importance of establishing an open, flexible attitude toward reform efforts; openly engaging students in the reform process; and implementing policy changes, not just cultural changes. More specifically, the administration should implement the aforementioned policy changes outlined by Our Harvard Can Do Better.

By actively addressing the issue of sexual assault on campus and reforming its sexual assault policy, Harvard can positively contribute to the national movement to combat sexual violence, possibly inspiring other colleges to establish policy and cultural changes regarding sexual assault as well. In this way, Harvard can play a role in discouraging future incidents of sexual assault and increasing the safety of students on college campuses nationwide.

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