For a handful of colleges, the federal government’s pressure to update sexual assault procedures has put already in-progress policy modifications on the fast track.
The pointed reminder  early last month from the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights to all colleges of their responsibilities to address and prevent sexual harassment under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has served as an impetus for small but significant shifts that were already in the works or being considered at the Universities of Georgia and Oklahoma, as well as Stanford University.
At Oklahoma, after heated student protests, President David L. Boren announced two weeks ago that he would propose changing the university’s student code to extend the filing deadline for sexual misconduct cases from 30 days to one year from the time of the alleged incident.
Boren said in a letter to the student newspaper, The Oklahoma Daily,  that he wants an advisory committee including student representation to recommend additional policy and program alterations. “Changing the time for filing student complaints is only one of the needed changes. A comprehensive approach is needed,” Boren wrote. “More educational sources, better investigative processes and additional training of police officers should all be part of any comprehensive plan.”
Students had rallied against the 30-day statute of limitations. Boren said the spark for the changes was Oklahoma undergraduate Jordan Ward, who wrote a Daily column  describing her experience with the assault reporting process after having been raped at a fraternity party.
In an e-mail, Oklahoma spokeswoman Catherine F. Bishop said Boren has appointed the committee to "conduct a thorough review" of the university's policies. She said he has raised the possibility of "mandatory freshman education and more training for those charged with enforcing the policy." Boren wants the policies and programs to make Oklahoma "a national role model," she said.
The OCR reminder came in the form of an 18-page "Dear Colleague" letter  clarifying numerous procedural requirements, among them to notify students, parents and employees of nondiscrimination and resources to address cases of sexual assault; designate at least one employee to coordinate Title IX compliance; and adopt and publish grievance procedures "providing for prompt and equitable resolution of student and employee sex discrimination complaints."
Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said that if a college was already under pressure to adjust its policies, as was the case with Oklahoma and the other aforementioned universities, the OCR's letter, which demanded immediate progress, may prompt a speedier process. But the vast majority of colleges are still considering how to move forward, she said. "The lengthy letter is full of 'musts' and 'shoulds,' and it must be parsed carefully. I doubt any institutions will ignore this letter. But it takes a while for institutions to get their processes under way," Meloy said. "They have to really compare what they're doing with what they think that letter may be requiring." She added that as the academic year is wrapping up, it's a difficult time to initiate such changes.
On April 12, Stanford President John L. Hennessy changed the university's standard of proof in sexual assault cases, which the OCR letter said should be a "preponderance of evidence" -- in other words, more likely than not -- rather than the criminal standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt." S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security on Campus, an organization that works on sexual assault issues and was very pleased with the OCR letter, said Stanford was "one of a very small percentage of schools" using the criminal standard. Security on Campus in 2005 had asked Stanford to lessen its burden of proof, and the university had said it was under review.
At Stanford, whose student judicial process was already under review after students alleged that it put victims at a disadvantage by requiring an unusually high standard of proof, the OCR letter was "the impetus" for several changes as part of a pilot "alternate review process," said Chris Griffith, Stanford's associate vice provost and dean of student life, in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. That process provides sexual assault investigation training for case reviewers, expedites complaint resolutions, and involves a small group of reviewers. The university also created a new assistant dean position to "develop a comprehensive and coordinated response to victims of sexual assault," Griffith said.
Carter acknowledged that for colleges that don't already have them in place, most procedures clarified in the letter will take longer than the month that's passed to implement. But he said there was no reason not to address the burden of proof question immediately. "I think things are progressing for the most part as we would expect them to," Carter said. "Some of the broader things they're talking about are going to take a bit more time. You want the entire process to be a thoughtful one, making sure it meets all the community needs and expectations and serves all of the things the office talks about in terms of expectations."
At Georgia, the letter was yet another reason to take action. A committee of the university council, the body that creates and forwards educational rules and regulations before they are sent to the president and ultimately the Board of Regents for approval, released a report last week that said Georgia was failing to uncover and address sexual harassment on campus, and also criticized the institution's Equal Opportunity Office for inconsistency and procedural violations. That office is also at the tail end of a regular administrative five-year performance review.
The university council committee also said Georgia did not meet the Title IX requirement of establishing clear grievance procedures and making them widely known and easily accessible. Georgia spokesman Tom Jackson called the "Dear Colleague" letter "timely," and said that had the faculty committee work not been under way, the university still would have assessed how the letter impacted its policies. "Obviously, we have several balls in the air in this arena," Jackson said.