Following the University's introduction of new sexual misconduct policies, campus anti-sexual assault advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better criticized the administration for not adequately incorporating affiliates’ feedback in the drafting process of the interim procedures.
In a Friday press release, Our Harvard Can Do Better members wrote that the interim policy did not sufficiently take into account key demands it had submitted to the University via an “Anti-Sexual Violence Letter” in July, at the same time adminstrators were revising Harvard’s sexual misconduct policy to be in compliance with controversial changes in federal Title IX regulations.
“We appreciate the engagement from the University during this process,” the release read. “However, we are dissatisfied with the lack of adequate response to specific priorities highlighted in our original letter.”
The Anti-Sexual Violence letter, which garnered more than 1,000 signatures from Harvard affiliates, called on the University to adopt a more comprehensive policy to address sexual misconduct than the procedures released by Secretary of Education Betsy D. DeVos.
The letter also urged the University to commit to maintaining “preponderance of the evidence” as standard in its investigations as well as devise a policy that would address instances of off-campus sexual misconduct no longer captured by the new Title IX regulations.
While Our Harvard Can Do Better acknowledged in their Friday statement that Harvard had maintained these elements of its former policy, the organization criticized the administration for not incorporating other key demands such as the adoption of an affirmative consent policy and the institution of a more community-inclusive Title IX policy review process.
“We expect stronger efforts from the University in adopting a comprehensive definition of affirmative consent, centralizing community members’ input in preventative measures and procedural development, and strengthening community support beyond Title IX policy,” the group wrate.
Harvard’s interim policies will continue to classify sexual misconduct as behavior that is “severe, persistent, or pervasive.” This standard, which the University has used in prior years, maintains a broader definition of harassment than the more stringent criteria put forth by DeVos’s regulations — which define sexual harassment as behavior that is both “severe” and “pervasive.”
However, the organization still deems Harvard’s “severe” or “pervasive” definition of sexual misconduct too narrow and is asking the school to adopt a standard based on affirmative consent.
William M. Sutton ’23, a member of Our Harvard Can Do Better, said this standard is already used by many other universities.
“We looked at other schools that have affirmative consent policies and some of the things that they include is very clear language that an absence of no does not mean yes,” Sutton said.
The group also criticized the administration for not engaging with their demand to defund the Harvard University Police Department — a measure that their previous letter called for on the grounds that the police can pose a threat to students of color and are intimidating to people who experienced sexual assault.
“That was a demand that was about the broader culture that we're creating on campus, but the university certainly did not even acknowledge that it was part of our demands,” Sutton said.
The group said they hope the administration will be more receptive to community feedback as it prepares to revise and formalize these interim policies over the coming year.
While Our Harvard Can Do Better members said they appreciated meeting with the Title IX office multiple times over the last two months, they still believe the University’s Title IX Policy Review Committee has been too “opaque” when it comes to its membership.
Priya P. Kukreja ’21, a member of Our Harvard Can Do Better, said that the group was aware that the committee had two student representatives but still hadn’t been informed of who the students were or how they were selected.
“[We’ve asked] to democratize the process of choosing students to go on the committee — as well as publishing their names online — but we've had an inadequate response there,” she said.
University spokesperson Nate Herpich wrote in an emailed statement that the University benefited immensely from the “valuable input” of Our Harvard Can Do Better and other student groups while it drafted this policy under a “very short timeline,” and that it would be making adjustments based on community feedback in the coming month.
“In the coming months, the University will incorporate the experiences and perspectives of Our Harvard Can Do Better and other members of our community into closely examining the interim policies and procedures, while making modifications as appropriate to meet the needs of the community, and ensuring compliance with the law,” the spokesperson said.
Kukreja said that Our Harvard Can Do Better members understand the University faced constraints in implementing some of their demands, given the limited timeframe allotted by the Department of Education for the policy revision.
“We totally empathize with the university and are frustrated with the department of education as well for doing that,” Kukreja said.
“But a lot of the progress that we're hoping to see — a lot of that is going to depend on what happens in the next few months and how receptive the university is to student feedback,” she said.
—Staff writer Isabel L. Isselbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @IsabelLarkin.