Harvard University and its law school reached a settlement Tuesday with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, pledging to revise its sexual harassment and sexual assault policies in order to address concerns that the university had failed to adequately provide a safe campus environment for students.
The agreement represents the latest example of how the Obama administration's aggressive use of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender at schools that receive federal funding, is reverberating across the country's institutions of higher learning. The Education Department's Office of Civil Rights is investigating dozens of colleges and universities under the law: as of Dec. 24 it was probing cases at 92 schools.
The Education Department concluded Harvard Law School's sexual harassment and assault procedures did not ensure a fair and prompt review of such allegations, and determined the school "did not appropriately respond to two student complaints of sexual assault," according to a department statement. In one case, law school officials took over a year to make a final determination, and the complainant could not participate in the extended appeal process; in the end officials reversed the initial decision to dismiss the accused student and instead dismissed the accuser's complaint.
In a separate incident, a Harvard undergraduate published a searing, anonymous piece in the Harvard Crimson in March that detailed how she tried and failed to convince university officials to transfer a male student from her dorm after he bit her and forced her into sexual activity the year before. She wrote:
"Dear Harvard: I am writing to let you know that I give up. I will be moving out of my House next semester, if only—quite literally—to save my life. You will no longer receive emails from me, asking for something to be done, pleading for someone to hear me, explaining how my grades are melting and how I have developed a mental illness as a result of your inaction. . .Today, Harvard, I am writing to let you know that you have won."
In July, Harvard adopted a new sexual harassment policy that establishes a uniform standard for all of its schools and centralized office to investigate all allegations. It also changed the burden of proof in determining whether a sexual assault or incident of harassment has taken place to a “preponderance of evidence,” which is the standard the Education Department recommends. Some of Harvard's schools had used a higher level of evidence before, and the move prompted an outcry from more than two dozen current and former members of the law school's faculty.
In a statement Tuesday, the Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights Catherine E. Lhamon congratulated "Harvard Law School for now committing to comply with Title IX and immediately implement steps to provide a safe learning environment for its students. This agreement is a credit to the strong leadership of Harvard President Drew Faust and Law School Dean Martha Minow, for which I am deeply grateful and from which I know their students will benefit significantly.”"
Harvard issued a statement saying both the university and its law school "are deeply committed to fostering a campus climate that is free of sexual harassment, including sexual violence. As the conversation about sexual assault at colleges and universities spread to campuses across the nation, Harvard recognized that, like many peer institutions around the country, we could and should do more."
"This voluntary resolution agreement approves and enshrines many of the pro-active changes Harvard has made in recent years," the statement said, adding in the coming months and years school officials "will continue the critical work of preventing sexual harassment and assault among our students, faculty and staff, and responding effectively when incidents do occur."
In addition to agreeing to revise all of its policies to conform with Title IX, Harvard — whose law school had been under scrutiny for four years -- also pledged to change the way it treats such complaints in other ways. Those measures include sharing information between the Harvard University Police Department and the university, notifying complainants they have a right to file a Title IX complaint with the law school as well as to pursue the criminal process if they've experienced sexual violence and review any complaints of sexual harassment filed during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic years to "carefully scrutinize whether the law school investigated the complaints consistent with Title IX."
The university also agreed to conduct annual climate assessments to determine if the steps the law school is taking are effective.
Some prominent law school faculty, however, warned in October that Harvard had gone too far in seeking to address the complaints of survivors of sexual assault, writing the procedures “lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process.”
"We strongly endorse the importance of protecting our students from sexual misconduct and providing an educational environment free from the sexual and other harassment that can diminish educational opportunity," wrote the professors, including Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and Alan Dershowitz. "But we believe that this particular sexual harassment policy adopted by Harvard will do more harm than good."