Campus anti-sexual assault advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better submitted a letter to University administrators Tuesday demanding Harvard increase their transparency about impending changes in its Title IX policy.
The “Anti-Sexual Violence Letter” — which garnered more than 1,000 signatures from College students and graduate students — lays out 16 demands for University administrators, including using an “affirmative consent” standard in determining instances of sexual misconduct, maintaining “preponderance of evidence” as the standard in formal complaint processes, and bolstering education and training for students and Harvard employees.
The new Title IX rules, issued by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy D. DeVos in early May, are set to take effect nationwide on August 14. Harvard will have to adhere to a number of new regulations, including controversial changes such as a new grievance procedure that requires witness cross-examination and a limitation on the complaints the University’s Title IX department can investigate.
Our Harvard Can Do Better’s letter states that these changes will “deter survivors from coming forward” in an environment where they “already do not feel safe on campus or comfortable reporting their experience.”
The group said its anti-sexual violence campaign was a joint effort with other student groups including the Harvard Graduate Student Workers-United Automobile Workers Time's Up Committee, the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, and the Harvard Law School Pipeline Parity Project. They have set Aug. 3 as a deadline for the University to respond.
Priya P. Kukreja ’21, a member of Our Harvard Can Do Better, said the level of community engagement throughout the campaign has been encouraging.
“It’s good to know there are this many people on board — not just for the support, but also for the pressure that a large number of Harvard community members and Harvard affiliates will be able to apply to Harvard,” she said.
The letter maintains that although Harvard is federally required to comply with the new federal policy, the University still has the ability to ensure a safer environment for survivors.
“There is wiggle room for Harvard to create policies that are still able to maintain a fair trial while ensuring that all students have equal access to education,” Kukreja said.
The Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment for the criticisms in this article.
Our Harvard Can Do Better’s letter also demands the University fully defund the Harvard University Policy Department and reallocate those funds to resources such as the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.
“Police presence poses an active risk to Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and the LGBTQ+ community on Harvard’s campus,” the letter reads. “Furthermore, police involvement in situations of sexual or gender-based violence has consistently proven to be inadequate, to lack trauma-informed response skills, and to blame survivors.”
HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano wrote in an emailed statement that the department is committed to maintaining a “safe and secure” campus environment for sexual assault victims.
“The HUPD offers emotional support, guidance and options counseling to any individual who is a victim of a sensitive crime, such as, rape, sexual assault, relationship or domestic violence, harassment and stalking,” he wrote, adding that the Department is staffed with “specially trained” officers to help victims explore their options and connect with support resources.
The letter also includes three demands calling on the University to engage community members in the drafting process of the University’s new Title IX policy.
Our Harvard Can Do Better member Phoebe H. Suh ’22 said the policy is currently being determined by a “very limited” group of Title IX officers and University administrators.
“We would like to see a more community-centered approach that brings in the voices of students from all the schools and OSAPR, so that the new policy can be informed by actual community standards and by trauma-informed experts,” Suh said.
In an emailed statement, University spokesperson Nate Herpich wrote that the University “continues to navigate the fast timeline put forward by the U.S. Department of Education with regards to the implementation of their new rules” and acknowledged that DeVos’s decision to release these rules during a global pandemic poses barriers to engagement with affiliates.
“[Title IX] staff have been meeting with students, faculty, and staff since the new regulations were issued in May, and we welcome the opportunity for continued engagement with community members in the coming weeks,” he wrote.
Kukreja said the group is asking for a response by Aug. 3 to have sufficient time for Harvard affiliates to give feedback on the drafted Title IX policy before the federal rules go into effect.
“The primary thing we need and we’re asking for is for them to make a commitment to releasing something so there’s time to include more discourse and time to negotiate what’s going to happen, as opposed to having a one-way, opaque, non-discursive approach to how this policy is made,” she said.
—Staff writer Isabel L. Isselbacher can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @IsabelLarkin.