Princeton University is moving toward adoption of a new standard for judging sexual misconduct cases, which would make it the latest high-profile school to revise its disciplinary policies amid a national movement to combat sex assault on campus.
The federal government has been investigating the Ivy League university in New Jersey since December 2010 in connection with its response to sexual violence reports and compliance with antidiscrimination law, one of the longest-running cases in the country.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) said this week it has such investigations at 77 schools nationwide to enforce the 1972 law known as Title IX.
How to prevent and respond to sexual assault has become a major issue on campuses from coast to coast. The New York Times reported Thursday that Florida State University has begun a disciplinary inquiry in connection with a student’s allegation that she was sexually assaulted by a star quarterback on the football team, Jameis Winston. He has not been charged with a crime and has denied wrongdoing.
At Princeton, the faculty are expected to vote Sept. 15 on a recommendation to judge sexual misconduct complaints through an evidentiary standard known as “preponderance of the evidence.” That would be a lower threshold for a finding of wrongdoing than Princeton’s current standard of “clear and persuasive.”
Another recommendation is to create a team of three investigators to specialize in cases involving allegations of sexual misconduct. If the team found a student responsible for misconduct, the dean of undergraduate students and an associate dean of the graduate school would determine a penalty. That would amount to a new track for review of sexual misconduct cases, which are currently handled by a subcommittee of a faculty-student committee on discipline.
If the faculty approves these revisions and others, according to a university statement, the Council of the Princeton University Community would be in line to approve the new policies Sept. 29.
“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, and that in the interest of fairness to all members of our community we should make these changes as promptly as possible,” Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber said in a statement Thursday.
In July, Harvard University announced a new policy on sex assault that includes the creation of an Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution, staffed by investigators who will make findings of fact using the “preponderance” standard. Harvard Law School has been under an OCR Title IX investigation since December 2010. In April 2014, the OCR began an investigation of Harvard College.
The preponderance standard, regularly used in civil litigation, essentially requires a finding that it is more likely than not that an allegation is true for a student to be held responsible for misconduct. Some advocates for men who have been punished for sexual misconduct say the standard is unfair and fails to give due process rights to the accused.
Wendy Murphy, a Boston attorney who filed federal civil rights complaints against Princeton and Harvard Law in 2010, said Friday she is pleased the universities are embracing the preponderance standard.
But Murphy said she was “a bit perplexed” by Eisgruber’s assertion that the need for revisions had become apparent over the summer. “He knows that Princeton has been under federal investigation for four years,” Murphy said.