Huffpost College
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Lee-Sean Huang Headshot

Sexual Assault: Our Harvard Can Do Better

Posted: Updated:
HARVARDLAW1229
Denis Jr. Tangney via Getty Images

This post is an open letter written and co-signed by a group of over 150 Harvard alumni, including Nancy Lima Taylor, Kaveri Indira Ph.D, Kevin Shawn Hsu, and myself. In this letter, we address our concerns about Harvard's failure to properly address sexual assault on campus, both in the case described in a first-person survivor account published in the Harvard Crimson last month, and in the broader systemic context. We also submitted this letter for publication in the Harvard Crimson, but the Crimson turned down our letter for publication.

_____

Dear President Faust, Dean Pfister and Title IX Coordinator Mia Karvonides,

As alumni of Harvard University, we are deeply concerned that Harvard is failing to properly address sexual assault at the College and its graduate and professional schools. We are deeply disappointed to learn that survivors were pushed to the point of filing a complaint with the United States Department of Education after Harvard University failed them by dismissing claims, neglecting to provide safe accommodations and refusing to pursue disciplinary cases against aggressors. This represents a tremendous failure of leadership at all levels of Harvard University.

Although we acknowledge that women are not the only victims of sexual assault, the majority of victims are women. It is estimated that nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have been sexually assaulted, while that number may go as high as 1 in 4 for women college graduates. As such, universities have a particular responsibility to combat sexual assault in every way possible. This is a matter of both personal safety and equal opportunity for women. It appears to us that Harvard is in violation of Title IX both in practice and in the spirit of the law: Women cannot be equals in a community that protects their attackers instead of them.

Moreover, it is disconcerting to learn that students have been sidelined from the conversation. Although nearly all Harvard community members who are victims of sexual assaults on or near campus are students, Harvard has not adequately included students in the conversation about how to make this campus safe for everyone. The University's commitment to survivors cannot be taken seriously as long as it continues to silence them and treat them like a danger to the institution, threatening them with a trip to the administrative board if they go public with their stories.

Survivors are not a liability, and we are deeply disappointed in our alma mater for treating them as such. It is inappropriate for House masters to recommend that students forgive and move on. It is inappropriate for residential deans to suggest that students are overestimating the enormity of the violation they have experienced. It is outrageous that someone must face their attacker several times a day or be isolated in a new residential house. FBI statistics tell us that false reports of sexual assault are rarer than other crimes. Yet, the university is willing to sacrifice its reputation to protect rapists from highly infrequent false accusations instead of protecting victims. Harvard, we are ashamed of you.

It's clear that the majority of the student body agrees it's time for reform. 85 percent of undergraduates voted in support of making Harvard a "Yes Means Yes" campus, demanding the administration do the right thing when it comes to requiring affirmative consent. The onus should no longer be on potential victims to avoid being attacked: We must teach people of all genders that consent is not optional, but mandatory, and the absence of "no" is not the equivalent to a "yes."

As alumni, we stand in solidarity with the Our Harvard Can Do Better Campaign and reiterate its key demands to dismantle Harvard's rape culture:
  1. Harvard must commit to becoming an affirmative consent university, and must also clarify a "mental incapacitation" definition that clearly identifies the point at which an individual is unable to consent under the influence.
  2. The Ad Board must adhere to Title IX standards to provide an expedient decision-making process for survivors.
  3. Standardize the informal process through which survivors can seek academic, residential, and extracurricular accommodations.
  4. Expand Office of Sexual Assault and Prevention Resources budget to include the necessary resources to properly educate the campus.
  5. Offer comprehensive and inclusive sexual assault prevention/response training to all students, every year.
  6. Require University employees, including faculty, residential staff and administrators, to undergo mandatory, regular, and thorough training about Title IX. Harvard must clearly explain to employees and students the purpose of Title IX and the Title IX coordinator.
  7. Harvard must make transparent and easily accessible to students consolidated data about sexual assaults at the College and University.
  8. Student voices should be a key component of any administration-formed advisory committees. Advisory committees must not force students to choose between their studies and their safety, and should also accommodate opportunities for student dialogue outside official committee meetings.

We have no reason to believe that President Faust's newly-commissioned Task Force will be any different than previous ones, which have yet to demonstrate any substantive policy change to address sexual assault. This is the third working group in little over a year. Swift action is necessary, not increased bureaucracy.

We look forward to hearing that the Harvard administration has recognized the error in its judgment and is working both to make substantive changes and also toward reconciliation with the survivors it has treated so shamefully. They deserve an apology as well as our thanks for pushing this community to be better. We fully expect Harvard to cooperate with the Department of Education when it opens an investigation in response to the complaint that has been filed.

We hope students know that they are not alone in the Harvard community: Alumni from all over the world are standing with them.

We will be watching and withholding donations until we know our Harvard is doing better.

Thank you for your consideration,

Lee-Sean Huang '02-'03, Nancy Lima Taylor '02-'03, Kaveri Indira Ph.D. '09, Kevin Shawn Hsu M.P.H. '10, and 150 Harvard Alumni