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Working Toward a Better Harvard

Taking stock of the Task Force report

Yesterday, Harvard’s Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault released its final report, the core of which was six recommendations for how the University can reduce its incidence of sexual assault. To a great extent, the roots of the problem are the internalized culture and norms with which students arrive in Cambridge. Harvard cannot credibly attempt to change that in four short years, but smart policies like those outlined in the report can reduce the prevalence of assault. Though we disagree with some of the report’s suggestions and assumptions, we strongly support most of its recommendations.

While the report is correct about the correlation between the consumption of alcohol and assault, a ban on or large penalties for hard alcohol misses the mark. This policy was implemented at Dartmouth last year and has not been very successful; a recent survey of Dartmouth students found that 85 percent of respondents had consumed hard alcohol on campus, and 80 percent viewed the policy as ineffective at lowering high-risk drinking. Given the more direct options available for addressing campus sexual assault and the costs of trying to police students, this recommendation represents far too little benefit at far too much cost.

We see the report’s suggestions on posting security guards outside of entrances to upperclass Houses more favorably, but believe that more clarity is certainly needed. Ideally, entry points would be kept the same and more guards hired, though we recognize that operational constraints might make that impossible.

Importantly, we worry that the report did not deal substantially enough with the consequences for the perpetrators of sexual assaults, perhaps largely by dint of the Task Force’s more limited mandate. While we understand the administrative desire to limit the Task Force’s work to a well-defined bailiwick, this omission is disappointing because it forgets that consequences work as a deterrent and are thus crucial to effective prevention.

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These criticisms should not detract from the more numerous areas in which the Task Force’s recommendations were well considered and deserving of implementation. For instance, its view of final clubs was a strong statement on the deeply troubling nature of exclusive social spaces with gendered power dynamics. We continue to believe that these groups pose significant challenges in the context of sexual assault and beyond. The results of last semester’s sexual assault survey suggest that final clubs are the site of a disproportionate number of assaults, and yesterday’s report reveals that female seniors "participating in the final clubs" are approximately 50 percent more likely to report sexual assault. In light of these startling and heartbreaking statistics, the Task Force is right to urge that the administration continue to pressure the male clubs to become co-ed.

Of course, simply addressing the problems with final clubs will not solve the the broader sexual assault problem, nor will it provide students with more inclusive social spaces. Here, the report’s request that the College streamline the party approval process in the Houses and enable more events like last semester’s [BLANK] Party are particularly well-targeted. These proposals could have a significant effect on the College’s social life by moving parties to venues that are safer and less susceptible to the gendered power dynamics present in final clubs.

Perhaps the most important recommendations are those on education and training for students. As the report argues, if sexual violence is fundamentally a societal problem, education must be a central focus of prevention. The suggestions that students receive yearly, substantive sexual assault training in small groups, and that such training be better integrated into residential life, deserve swift and full implementation.

A final but important area addressed by the report is the relatively high prevalence of sexual assault among Harvard’s BGLTQ community. Increasing resources for BGLTQ survivors, ensuring that the community receives adequate support, and deepening understanding of this worrying trend are all critical.

Ultimately, this report presents the Harvard community with an opportunity to deal substantively with a key issue facing our campus. Simply put, our attitude towards sexual assault must change. Not all of these changes will be successful, and as the report suggests they should be subject to rigorous research and evaluation. The new administrator recommended by the report could play a key role in ensuring that policies that work are widely implemented. But all of us have a role in ensuring that Harvard confronts the problem of sexual assault with care and intelligence. Together, we can indeed do better.

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