THE BLOG

For Yale Women, Equality Remains Out of Reach

07/18/2012 02:56 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2012

Penn State's high-profile sex abuse scandal has brought urgent new attention to the issue of institutional transparency and accountability in academia. Former FBI director Louis Freeh, in his official report on the case, said that Penn State officials showed "total and consistent" disregard for sex crime victims. Freeh's investigation revealed how dangerous it can be when senior administrators prioritize a university's reputation over the interests of sex crime victims.

Another sex-related investigation of a leading university concluded recently. In early June the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced that it was ending a yearlong investigation into the sexual climate at Yale University. The Yale investigation addressed cases of assault of college students, not children. For that reason, the Yale case didn't generate as much media coverage. Nevertheless, it raised similar questions about institutional accountability in response to campus sex crimes.

More broadly, the OCR's investigation raised questions about the status of women at the elite Ivy League school. Despite substantial evidence that Yale permitted a hostile sexual environment to persist on campus -- something that legally qualifies as gender discrimination under Title IX -- the government failed to find Yale in violation of gender equality laws. In so doing, the OCR ultimately failed to uphold the civil rights of Yale women.

The initial complaint -- filed by sixteen students and recent graduates -- listed a pattern of public taunts and assaults over the last seven years, and accused the university of allowing the problem to persist by failing to adequately respond to cases of sexual violence against women on campus.

Among the examples cited in the government's report was an incident in which a group of fraternity pledges gathered in front of the Yale Women's Center and held up a sign that read "We Love Yale Sluts." On another occasion, male students marched through campus at night chanting "No means yes. Yes means anal."

Students said that the university failed to adequately respond to these cases and others like them. One victim of sexual assault said university administrators discouraged her from going to the police or to the university's disciplinary committee.

In its report, the government acknowledges a climate of intimidation, harassment, and assault at Yale. Yet, inexplicably, the government has chosen not to penalize the university. In lieu of any penalty, the report mentions new grievance procedures adopted by the university after the investigation, as if ex post facto bureaucratic reforms were sufficient to absolve the university of any past wrongdoing.

The university's efforts to reform itself are commendable. But those recent reform efforts have no bearing on whether Yale broke the law. If Yale did violate the law, then the university should be subjected to a meaningful penalty. Students who were victims of harassment or assault during the period under investigation deserve to see their claims taken seriously.

In fact, the government has all but admitted that Yale failed to fully comply with Title IX statutes. At a press conference, Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, said that Yale under-reported incidents of sexual harassment and assault "for a very long time." She also said that the university failed to adequately inform students about resources meant to help victims of sexual assault, and failed to keep adequate records of incidents of sexual misconduct.

Notably, an alumni advisory committee appointed to review Yale's sexual climate recommended that Yale cancel its controversial Sex Week -- a biennial series of events that has in the past featured violent pornography, topless adult film stars, and workshops backed by corporate sponsors in the sex industry. Many students have complained that they find these events demeaning. Yet, disturbingly, Yale ignored the committee's recommendation, and hosted Sex Week again this year -- porn stars and all. All this from an institution that prides itself on its progressive concern for women's rights.

The government admits that wrongs took place, yet it has refused to issue any formal finding of wrongdoing. At stake is more than half a billion dollars in federal money that Yale receives annually -- any portion of which Yale could be at risk to lose if it were declared to be in violation of Title IX. Based on Assistant Secretary Ali's comments alone, a significant fine seems like a minimally appropriate response if the government wants to send the message that it takes the law seriously.

It has been more than forty years since Yale went co-ed. The admission of women to the formerly all-male undergraduate college was a watershed moment in the women's movement. Because Yale is a university that, more than any other, has become a training ground for our nation's political elite, it was an occasion of national significance for women. Yet, in the decades since, the history of women at Yale has been troubled -- especially when it comes to sex.

In a 1977 landmark case, a group of Yale women filed suit against the university (Alexander v. Yale), claiming they had been targets of persistent sexual harassment and that the university had allowed a hostile sexual climate to take hold on campus. In other words, those women made accusations against the university very similar to the ones filed by Yale women last year.

Alexander v. Yale is significant because in that case the courts first established that failing to guard the public space from sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination. Ironically, this is the very same legal precedent under which a group of Yale women, my former classmates, filed their complaint against the university last year.

The OCR's failure to penalize Yale, in spite of the evidence that the law was broken, makes it look as if a well-connected university like Yale is considered above accountability. And if Yale isn't going to be held accountable for failing to provide a safe and respectful place for women, it looks like little has changed in the last forty years.