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Harvard Sexual Assault Report Calls for Training, Culture Change

3.8.16

Steven E. Hyman

Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications.


Steven E. Hyman

Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications.

A University task force charged with making recommendations for the prevention of sexual assault at Harvard issued its final report today. It calls for changing the campus culture (including such fixtures as single-sex undergraduate final clubs) and for speedily developing plans for sexual-assault training for all University students.

The report recommends that:

  • The University develop a plan before the beginning of the fall semester (emphasis added) to implement sexual-assault training and education.
  • Each school’s plan should include mandatory annual training for all students in the prevention of sexual assault (emphasis added).
  • The training should cover values, alcohol use, and healthy sexuality as well as policies, and should be developed with student input so that it resonates with the student body.
  • The president should create a new position within the Office of the Provost to oversee this work and “be responsible for coordinating and supporting the work of OSAPR [Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response], the Title IX office, and the Schools in addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment.”
  • The University should allocate additional resources to the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Queer (BGLTQ) community, in which the incidence of sexual assault is disproportionately higher.
  • The president should direct the College to address the problem of final clubs and Greek organizations by taking actions that result in “expanded membership practices that include all genders.”

Because the report calls for a change in campus culture, it “not only addresses specific factors that increase the risk of sexual assault,” according to its authors, “but also considers what it means to be a citizen of this campus and the nature of our responsibilities to one another.”

In a letter addressed to the Harvard community, President Drew Faust lauded the report for providing a strong empirical base on which to ground actions and, in the future, to measure their success. In particular, she cited its “recommendation for more regular, values-based training” for recognizing “that students help shape—and to a significant extent are responsible for—the cultures in which they live, play, and study.”

She also drew attention to the “clear and powerful call for the University to address issues presented by final clubs,” noting that these relate “not only to sexual assault but also to the implications of gender discrimination, gender assumptions, privilege, and exclusivity on our campus. The need to bolster support for members of the BGLTQ community is important because of what a sexual-conduct survey [released last fall—see below] told of their distressing experience here and at other universities,” she continued. “But it matters equally as part of broader and ongoing efforts at Harvard to foster a community in which all members are fully respected and fully belong.”

Sexual assault is inimical to the University’s educational mission, she wrote: “As an academic community, we are dedicated to the possibilities of transformation—intellectual and personal—that are inherent in the search for knowledge. Sexual assault and harassment threaten those possibilities and undermine core institutional values.”

The Sexual-Assault Survey

The task force’s final recommendations follow a September 2015 report that presented the results of a survey on student sexual conduct at Harvard and 26 other private and public Association of American Universities (AAU) institutions. At that time, former University provost Steven E. Hyman, who has chaired the Harvard Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault since it was formed by Faust in 2014, called “the incidence of nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or incapacitation” at Harvard “unacceptable.”

Among that survey’s findings were that, by the time they were seniors, 16 percent of Harvard undergraduate women had experienced sexual assault that included nonconsensual, completed or attempted penetration—and that when nonconsensual touching was included, the proportion rose to 31.2 percent. The survey also found that only 16 percent of female undergraduates thought it very or extremely likely that campus officials would take action against offenders (compared to 25 percent of female undergraduates at peer private institutions included in the survey). Furthermore, half or more of all undergraduate and graduate students said they knew little or nothing about: what happens when a student reports an incident of sexual assault or sexual misconduct; where to make such a report; or even how sexual assault or misconduct is defined. More than a third indicated they wouldn’t know where to get help if they or a friend experienced such an incident. At that time, Hyman said that any solution to the problem would require “concerted action from the entire community.”

Focusing on the Community

In addition to making specific recommendations to address the problems uncovered by the survey, this final task-force report takes a broad view of the issues and their solutions. It states “that to respond effectively to the president’s charge, we must ask what sort of community we aspire to be…,” adding that

The University has a special responsibility in this area: The actions of its leadership, the policies it advances, and the seriousness and effectiveness with which its leaders commit themselves to the problem of sexual assault provide the underpinnings necessary for a stronger community. Responsibility also lies with students, faculty, and staff, whose day-to-day interactions with each other largely define the community we form together. [Sexual assault] is a problem affecting all of higher education—and, indeed, society as a whole. It speaks to broader aspects of our culture and perceptions of gender, gender identity, sexuality, race, and equality. Given these overlapping responsibilities at the individual, leadership, and societal levels, it is only through the joint engagement of all parts of our campus that Harvard will make durable and significant progress in addressing the serious and longstanding problem of sexual assault.

The report provides detailed explanations of how its conclusions might be implemented—suggesting where deficiencies now exist.

For example, the recommendations enumerate the resources that the University has already created—including Title IX officers, the Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and its network of trained tutors in the freshman dormitories and the upperclass Houses, and a multitude of websites and apps—but indicate a pressing need for better coordination and organization of this infrastructure both within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the graduate and professional schools. The authors note that a single session of training during new student orientation is insufficient to “help students internalize” the community’s expectations. Further, the task force recommends that all resident advisers, tutors, and proctors “engage in sexual assault prevention training and response education…,” and that faculty members be provided a “primer” with information on how to direct students to campus resources.

For everyone, the quality of education must be improved: “Education must be delivered not in the spirit of a bureaucratic box to be checked, but as lessons that will be attended to, taken seriously, and internalized. Education must reach beyond the small portion of the community that is intensively involved in conversations about sexual assault; it must also make a significant impact on the larger population of students. The measures of success must focus not only on delivery of these materials, but also on outcomes.”

Because the College presents “distinctive issues” as a consequence of the age of its students, its size, and its residential nature, the task force addresses specific recommendations to undergraduates, including mandatory alcohol and sexual-assault prevention education for students and student organizations holding parties; a variety of strategies for mitigating the presence and effects of alcohol (the principal risk factor for sexual assault); and the creation of a bystander-intervention program, echoing the call of Vice President Joseph P. Biden to the audience watching the Academy Awards that they all take a pledge: “I will intervene in situations where consent cannot or has not been given.” (The Obama White House has taken an active stance against sexual violence on campuses, pressuring institutions nationwide to reform or risk losing federal funding.) The recommendations even include creation of an undergraduate course— subject to faculty approval—on sexuality, taught from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

Final Clubs

Because “final clubs present special concerns related to impact on campus culture, gender equality, sexual misconduct, and the role of alcohol” in the College, the report includes an additional section on these unique student organizations, which are private but whose membership consists of Harvard College students. “While final clubs are not the exclusive or even the principal cause of sexual assault at the College,” the report notes, “we also do not see any solution that does not involve addressing the disturbing practical and cultural implications they present in undergraduate life.” Although 75 percent of sexual assaults take place in dormitories, 17 percent take place in a space “used by a single-sex student social organization,” making such locations not only the next most common site where assault occurs, but also disproportionate contributors to the problem, given the small numbers of students who are club members.

The task force writes: “We are not suggesting that the problem of sexual assault at Harvard is solely or even principally a byproduct of the activities and influence of final clubs. The behavioral and cultural problems run deep and implicate a range of institutional structures and behavioral choices that extend well beyond the clubs.” But task-force interviews with undergraduates indicate that the clubs have “a disproportionate influence on campus culture—and, more importantly, one that is in many respects negative and helps perpetuate an environment where sexual assault occurs with the frequency reported in the AAU survey. As we have noted throughout this report, culture—both on our campus and in society at large—matters tremendously, both in creating an environment where nonconsensual sexual assaults can take place and for any prevention efforts to be sustained and successful.”

As private organizations, final clubs present a particularly thorny problem for Harvard College’s attempts to comply with Title IX (the federal law barring discrimination on the basis of gender). The task force therefore urges the College “to continue to engage with the final clubs toward the objective of nondiscriminatory and open membership practices.” (Some of the clubs have already taken steps to admit women.) But “If those conversations fail to make progress, or if the transition by the clubs to open and nondiscriminatory membership practices fails to address the issues we have identified in this report,” the report states, “we believe the University should not rule out any alternative approaches. We also urge the College to continue in its efforts to re-center student life on the Houses and on-campus activities” by developing new social spaces, even before the Smith Campus Center’s scheduled opening in 2018.

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