The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced Tuesday that it has entered into an agreement with Harvard University and its law school, bringing an end to one of the department’s longest-running Title IX investigations and strengthening a sexual assault policy that some Harvard faculty have criticized as being unfair to accused students.
The law school violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal anti-discrimination law that requires colleges to investigate campus sexual assaults, by providing more rights to the accused than to the accusers, the department said Tuesday. In one case, the Harvard Law School took more than a year to make its final decision about an alleged sexual assault, allowing the accused student to take part in a lengthy – and ultimately successful – appeal process in which he was able to be represented by legal counsel.
The student who brought the complaint was not allowed the same opportunities, the department said.
At the time, this was in line with the college’s official policies regarding the post-hearing rights of accused students. The process also used a “clear and convincing” standard of proof, rather than the department’s recommended “preponderance of evidence” standard. During the four-year investigation, many institutions switched to this lower standard, but institutions like Harvard and Princeton University both held onto the higher standard until earlier this year. Princeton entered into its own Title IX agreement, which mirrors Harvard's in several ways, last month.
Harvard finally updated its sexual assault policy in July, changing its standard of evidence, expanding its definition of sexual assault and harassment, designating a Title IX coordinator, and publishing its non-discrimination notice. As part of the agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, the university will also have to share information between the Harvard police department and the university; train staff and provide information sessions for students; conduct annual climate surveys; and review any sexual assault complaints filed between 2012 and 2014.
While the agreement has brought the investigation into Harvard Law School to a close, a separate investigation into Harvard College, the university’s undergraduate school, remains open. While Harvard now has a university-wide sexual assault policy, each of its schools has traditionally been allowed some autonomy in how they investigate allegations and punish students. Harvard College is one of 90 institutions still under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights.
"I am very pleased to bring to close one of our longest-running sexual violence investigations, and I congratulate Harvard Law School for now committing to comply with Title IX and immediately implement steps to provide a safe learning environment for its students," Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement.
Even before the agreement brought additional changes to the university’s procedures for handling of sexual assault allegations, Harvard’s updated policy was criticized by advocates both for victims and for the accused. Student activists said the rules don’t go far enough in protecting survivors of sexual assault, but some Harvard Law School faculty said the university-wide policy trampled on the rights of the accused. Nearly 30 members of the faculty signed a letter published in The Boston Globe, urging the university to “withdraw” the new policy.
“Harvard has adopted procedures for deciding cases of alleged sexual misconduct which lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process, are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused, and are in no way required by Title IX law or regulation,” the faculty wrote.
OCR also had some complaints about the university’s updated policy, saying that it lacked specific timeframes for when sanctions would be imposed after a Title IX violation is found. The department expects the entire process – from the start of an investigation to the imposing of sanctions – to be completed in 60 days.
On Tuesday, Harvard stated that the new agreement “enshrines many of the proactive changes” it had already made in recent years.
“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,” the university said.
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