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John Harvard's Journal

News Briefs

January-February 2019

Police—and Student—Conduct

The committee appointed by President Drew Faust last spring to review the April 13 off-campus arrest of a black undergraduate by Cambridge police—video evidence showed the physical force used to restrain him—completed its report on November 9.

The committee recommended clearer communications from the Harvard police department (HUPD) to the University community about what members should expect in emergency situations, and about off-campus incidents. It also recommended that the University health services (HUHS) and HUPD consider the viability of including mental-health professionals as first responders when mental-health crises arise. HUHS was encouraged as well to promote awareness of its alcohol and drug services, and the College and schools, and HUPD and HUHS, were variously charged with doing a better job of training for multicultural competence, explaining how to report incidents of racial bias, communicating the amnesty program for seeking help during alcohol crises, and, generally, working to build a closer relationship with students.

In an email to the community, President Lawrence S. Bacow endorsed the committee’s principles concerning safety for all concerned, and its detailed recommendations.

Toward the end of his message, he focused on an element of the report that figured repeatedly in his addresses to entering freshmen at Tufts, where he was previously president: the effects of alcohol use, and community members’ responsibilities to one another (see “The Pragmatist,” September-October 2018, page 32). The committee noted that the arrest occurred during Yardfest, the spring undergraduate concert—and that 17 students had to be medically transported for intoxication or overdose, far more than in prior years. The concert and that need for assistance generated unprecedented demand on first responders (and area hospitals). Bacow focused on how those “behaviors…not only put the students involved at risk, but…also compromised the capacity of emergency medical personnel to respond.” Beyond the committee’s recommendations to reconceive Yardfest and similar events, the president observed that the report is “an essential reminder about how interconnected any community is—how one person’s actions can have profound implications for others—and underscores the need for all of us to be cognizant of our responsibilities both to ourselves and to the broader community.”

Read the report at https://www.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/content/Review_Committee_Report_20181113.pdf.

Title IX Rebooted

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in mid November unveiled draft regulations governing campus sexual assaults. If put into place after public comment, they would be the first formal regulations on how education institutions must proceed to address such assaults under Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal funds. In 2017, DeVos set aside guidance (not formal rules) issued under the Obama administration; that regime led to much more reporting of alleged incidents of sexual assault, but also to objections from those accused of perpetrating the assaults, who claimed that, among other faults, the evidentiary standard employed in hearing assault cases (the “preponderance of evidence”) was unfair.

The proposed regulations allow institutions to choose what standard to employ, including a more rigorous one (“clear and convincing” evidence that abuse or harassment occurred). The regulations also appear to limit institutions’ liability to incidents that occur on campus, or in the context of an educational program (as opposed to, say, in an off-campus residence), and that are more formally reported to an investigatory officer who has authority in such cases. Most significantly, the regulations narrow the definition of offenses from “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” to “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that it denies someone equal access to an educational program. And they guarantee those accused the right to cross-examine the accuser, in a live hearing, although not face-to-face.

Advocates for those accused of campus sexual assault have generally favored such changes. Victims’-rights advocates were quick to denounce the regulations for likely inhibiting reporting of assaults or harassment, and for outlining procedures that would, in effect, punish victims anew. What changes in procedures and policies, if any, Harvard would make must of course await formal adoption and promulgation of the regulations. 

In the Public Arena

As Lawrence S. Bacow works to address public skepticism about the value of higher education, populist critiques of elite institutions, and disparagement of the search for truth—a major theme of his presidency—survey research sheds light on divided opinion about colleges and universities. Americans appear supportive of education, but they are polarized along familiar partisan lines—for example, about whether schools are hospitable to conservative opinions. One issue on which respondents seem united is their dismay over the costs of educating their children—a concern that Bacow has also highlighted.

“Americans’ Views of Higher Education as a Public and Private Good,” with lead authorship by Noah D. Drezner, associate professor at Columbia’s Teachers College, found that 76 percent of adults consider public spending on higher education an excellent or good investment, with women more favorable than men; black and Hispanic respondents more favorable than white and Asian-American ones; and liberals more likely to consider it an excellent investment (56 percent) than conservatives (32 percent).

A Pew Research Center survey found that 61 percent of Americans think higher education is going in the wrong direction (including a majority of Democrats and those leaning Democratic); some 84 percent of those respondents who feel higher education is off track cited high tuition costs; two-thirds said students were not acquiring work skills. As for partisan differences, about half said colleges and universities were too concerned about protecting students from offensive views, or that professors imparted their sociopolitical views in the classroom—frequent criticisms raised on the political right (79 percent and 75 percent of Republicans cited these concerns, vs. 17 percent and 31 percent of Democrats, respectively).

“Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work,” based on research sponsored by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, assessed business executives’ and hiring managers’ perspectives on graduates’ job qualifications. Nearly two-thirds of both cohorts were confident about the value of colleges and universities, and larger majorities thought that graduating was very important or essential: more positive attitudes than those among the public at large. Majorities also thought graduates had good skills for entry-level positions—but only a minority found that those new hires had the skills required for promotion. Encouragingly for advocates of liberal education, the employers ranked skills such as communications, critical thinking, ethical judgment, and motivation highly among the attributes they seek.

WGBH, the Boston public radio station, and ABT Associates conducted a national survey that found 67 percent of respondents had a strongly to somewhat favorable view of higher education, with 22 percent somewhat to strongly unfavorable. Respondents were 17 percentage points more favorably disposed to public than to private institutions, and 23 percentage points more likely to find Ivy graduates elitist than graduates at large. Although 78 percent of respondents would be concerned about reduced state funding for public colleges, those surveyed opposed, by a small margin, raising taxes to support public higher ed. And although 70 percent favored basing admissions decisions on a “variety” of factors, rather than exclusively on grades and test scores (just 27 percent supported that), 72 percent opposed using race as a factor in making admissions decisions—which perhaps explains the political and legal problem Harvard and other selective institutions face today.

Finally—the polling business appears to be booming—a Gallup survey found 48 percent of Americans expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education—down from 57 percent in 2015. The decline was particularly pronounced among Republicans (down 17 percentage points)—making for a 23-percentage-point gap in attitudes between party partisans, 11 points wider than in 2015.

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