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Princeton is the final Ivy Leaguer to lower burden of proof for sexual assault

An interactive public art project at Princeton called “The Surface” invited passersby last semester to write on the originally blank panels. (Photo by Aly Neel)

Amid increasing national pressure on colleges and universities to more aggressively tackle sexual assault, Princeton University has finally decided to overhaul its own policies and procedures.

At 4 p.m. on Monday, university faculty members packed storied Nassau Hall for their first regularly scheduled meeting of the year. Arguably the most important item on the agenda: a vote on the following recommendations set forth earlier this month by the internal Faculty Advisory Committee on Policy on the way the university investigates campus sexual assault:

(1)   A lower burden of proof: An evidence standard of “preponderance” (i.e., more likely than not) in all disciplinary matters will replace the university’s “clear and persuasive” evidence standard (i.e., it is highly probable or reasonably certain that the sexual harassment or violence occurred);

(2)   Removal of students from adjudication: Instead of a disciplinary committee made up of faculty and student volunteers, the university will use a panel of professionally trained investigators to look into allegations of sexual misconduct;

(3)   Parity for the complainant and the respondent in the right to appeal;

(4)   Outside advisers: Both the complainant and the respondent will be allowed to have non-university advisers, including lawyers, in all meetings.

Nearly two hours later, the recommendations had been approved. What took the longest was a debate not on the meat of the proposed changes but on a motion to postpone the vote until such a debate could take place, to which Dean of Faculty Deborah Prentice responded that Princeton was under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to meet explicit legal requirements. An e-mail by English professor Deborah Nord circulated earlier in the week among the gender and sexuality studies faculty echoed the “urgency about the need for prompt approval.”

Earlier this month, Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber was quoted in the university statement as saying, “In conversations over the summer with OCR about its pending review of Princeton’s practices in these areas, it became clear that we needed to modify our sexual-misconduct policies and procedures to become fully compliant with current Title IX requirements.”

This sounds proactive — or at least responsive — but some activists have pointed out that Princeton has dragged its feet for years on the adoption of the preponderance of the evidence standard. Until Monday, Princeton was the only Ivy League institution to use the clear and persuasive evidence standard in campus sexual assault cases, according to the Princetonian. “The University has once again been found playing catch-up to its peers,” the university paper’s editorial board said last week.

The federal investigation into Princeton’s handling of sexual assault complaints began in 2010, when Wendy Murphy, adjunct professor at the New England School of Law in Boston and a Title IX advocate, filed a complaint against the university. Murphy told She the People in an e-mail on Sept. 4, the day the university announced the recommendations, that she raised the issue of the evidence standard then.

“It has been a slow and tortuous battle to get Princeton to adopt the correct standard — an issue I have been fighting for years — against many schools,” Murphy said.

That seems to be changing. Unrelenting demand for change on colleges and universities across the country by the White House, Congress, the media and, most important, student survivors and activists has gained unprecedented momentum and resulted in important progress.

After years of relative inaction, Princeton announced the proposed overhaul of its sexual misconduct policies and procedures four months after OCR released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment cases. That list has since grown to 77 institutions.

Princeton is only the most recent of many of these institutions to revamp its sexual misconduct policies, underscoring that change, unfortunately, has been largely reactive rather than proactive (think Amherst College, Columbia University, Dartmouth College and Harvard). For others involved in this fight, that means holding their respective campuses accountable and supporting and sharing student survivors’ stories, as Know Your IX, a national “survivor-run, student-driven campaign to end campus sexual violence,” has successfully done all over the country.

Cautiously optimistic
As someone who works on this issue and as a student on this campus, I was pleased but not surprised by Princeton’s decision to lower its burden of proof for sexual assault cases. Especially after Harvard’s decision this summer, it was a matter of time (after all, no one wants to be that Ivy). Still, the importance of this policy change in helping sexual assault survivors feel more comfortable coming forward about a crime that the majority of survivors never report to the authorities cannot be exaggerated.

Along with the above recommendations, the faculty also approved the formation of a faculty-student Committee on Sexual Misconduct that would, among other good things such as raise awareness, provide consultative support to the administration for annual climate surveys. Now, if you can recall the last time you read “survey,” “Princeton” and “sexual assault” in the same sentence, you know this recommendation is particularly celebration-worthy (which could only be topped if the already introduced Campus Safety and Accountability Act did not mandate national annual surveys of students’ experiences with sexual violence at college). What will determine the committee’s effectiveness is the extent to which Princeton’s administration is willing to be transparent and allow the committee’s resulting recommendations to influence its decisions.

What I have found most reassuring over the past year on this campus, though, is the support of Princeton’s faculty. When a certain alumna who shall remain nameless made victim-blaming comments in an interview with the Daily Princetonian, 200 faculty members promptly responded with a letter to the editor: “We wish to inform the students of this campus that we do not believe that their manner of dress or drinking behavior makes them responsible for unwanted sexual contact. We, the undersigned faculty, stand behind victims of sexual assault and want them to know that our campus is a place where they have a voice, where they will not be made to feel responsible and where they can find support and justice.”

When the faculty voted unanimously to approve the recommendations on the university’s handling of sexual misconduct, it did just that — communicating to us that standing by students for a more just, effective and efficient means to justice is indeed aligned with Princeton University values.