Harvard struggles to clarify sexual-conduct policies
By Evan Lips | March 4, 2016, 19:36 EDT
CAMBRIDGE – This week’s town hall-style meeting at Harvard University, billed as an event aimed at educating undergraduates on the school’s new Title IX sexual-conduct policies, managed to leave some students feeling more confused about the changes, according to a Harvard Crimson report.
The student newspaper reported that Harvard’s Title IX officer, Mia Karvonides, led the discussion and focused on the new “unwelcome conduct” standards. The paper said Karvonides informed students that consent under the policy can’t be assumed in the absence of the word “no” or based on “clothing, gender, race or sexual orientation.”
An undergraduate later told Karvonides that the majority of her fellow students have trouble grasping the concept of “unwelcome conduct” and what the school’s policies dictate, the Crimson said. Karvonides responded that the campus Title IX office has “fallen short” in providing clarity and transparency.
The office’s website features several links to definitions of various terms and concepts, including what sort of conduct may be deemed to be unwelcome. In such cases, it says, “the university will look at the totality of the circumstances” involved. It goes on to say that unwelcome conduct that is “sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive” can be a violation of school policy by creating a “hostile environment” for a student or worker.
“The university must determine both that a reasonable person considering all the circumstances would find the conduct unwelcome and the environment hostile and that the complainant viewed them as such,” the office says in a section on frequently asked questions.
In order for conduct to reach “unwelcome” status, “the university must find from both an objective and subjective perspective that the conduct was unwelcome.”
According to the Crimson, anti-sexual assault student activists in October criticized the website section as “totally inaccessible” and “opaque.”
Last fall the school also made public the results of a campus sexual climate survey, in which the university was a voluntary participant. The results showed that less than 15 percent of students surveyed identified themselves as being “very or extremely knowledgeable about how the university defines sexual assault and sexual misconduct.”
Karvonides prior to beginning her position in March 2013 as Harvard’s first Title IX officer worked for five years as a lawyer in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The unit was created shortly after President Barack Obama took office.
The unit drew congressional attention earlier this year when Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) questioned a series of “Dear Colleague” letters sent to colleges and universities, beginning in 2010, during Karvonides time there. The letters advised schools about revisions in Title IX policies relating to sexual conduct. Under the changes, cases involving sexual conduct are adjudicated “based upon the preponderance of the evidence,” a standard that drew the ire of more than 20 members of the Harvard Law School faculty at the time. They said the code violated students’ rights to due process.
The standard is currently at the heart of a legal action brought by a recent Harvard grad who claims that administrators didn’t act swiftly or strongly enough after she complained about sexual harassment and abuse by a former boyfriend.
According to the Crimson, Karvonides said that her office recently began distributing brochures outlining and further clarifying unwelcome conduct.