Confusion and silence

Barry Falls

Barry Falls

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Yale is far from alone in its struggles to adjudicate sexual harassment on campus. The Department of Justice reports that one in five undergraduate women is assaulted during her college years. In 2010, the Center for Public Integrity, a liberal investigative journalism group, concluded a yearlong study of sexual assault policies at schools across the country. The center’s reporters “found that a thick blanket of secrecy still envelops cases involving allegations of sexual assault on campus” and that students deemed “‘responsible’ for alleged sexual assaults on college campuses can face little or no consequence for their acts.”

The Title IX complainants at Yale allege that both of these problems are embedded within Yale’s approach to sexual misconduct. Critics of the complaint have argued that these problems are no worse than at other schools, and maybe not as bad. (Princeton, Duke, Harvard Law School, and the University of Virginia are also facing Title IX investigations on similar claims.) When news of the complaint broke in April, Yale College dean Mary Miller ’81PhD wrote in a letter to the college community that “Yale is notable, in fact, for the extraordinary number and range of initiatives, programs of study, working groups, faculty and student organizations, and administrative offices devoted to the advancement of women and women’s issues.” She added that “Yale has strong regulations” on sexual misconduct, has investigated “questionable incidents,” and has issued “penalties where warranted.”

Comparing campuses can be difficult, given the subjectivity involved in evaluating a school’s sexual environment. Numbers don’t tell the full story: most victims don’t report their experiences, and low numbers of reported assaults can sometimes indicate an atmosphere in which victims don’t feel comfortable coming forward. But whether or not Yale’s atmosphere is worse than other schools’, media attention to the Title IX investigation has made the university a focal point for discussion of sexual harassment on college campuses.

Yale has rolled out a series of major reforms in the months since the investigation was announced and has indicated that it plans to hold itself publicly accountable for following through. The moves have raised hopes that the university could emerge as an innovator in a field that most schools struggle to navigate.

Though Alison thinks Yale has historically given students the impression of “not caring about justice for either side but really caring about their reputation,” she believes that were Yale to be “at the forefront of a disclosure wave,” the school could “go down in history as leading the way on this.”

When Catherine began her freshman year at Yale, she wasn’t surprised by the school’s rampant hook-up culture. She knew how to navigate it and when and how to say no. So when she learned that an athlete she knew was telling his teammates awful stories about her—that he’d seen her having sex on the floor of his common room, and that her “vagina was a petri dish that was growing STDs from all the people I’d hooked up with,” Catherine says—she approached his residential college dean to lodge a complaint. The dean told her to work it out with the student. (“Catherine” is a pseudonym.)

Catherine was shocked, but she approached the student, who she says told her, “What’s the harm with a little exaggeration?” Catherine managed to mentally brush off her interaction with her harasser, she says, because “when people say things that are that ridiculous, it’s OK.” But the dean’s reaction was different. “It made me feel like I didn’t belong here, and I wanted to leave.”

She told her freshman counselor what had happened and remembers him saying “he thought there was a hotline I could call if the harassment continued.” Yale has more than just a hotline that Catherine could have called—it has a Sexual Harassment Grievance Board that could have processed her complaint. But neither the dean nor the freshman counselor directed Catherine to it.

Besides Yale College, the university has 13 graduate and professional schools, and until July 1 of this year, each school had its own grievance procedures for victims of sexual harassment and assault. Undergraduates essentially had three options: bring a complaint to the Sexual Harassment Grievance Board, which would provide informal mediation; bring a complaint to the Executive Committee, which would determine whether disciplinary action was merited; or go to the police.

The Title IX complainants allege that students who found their way to the Grievance Board or Executive Committee experienced a lengthy investigation process with frequent delays. One complainant, who graduated in May, reached out to a member of the Grievance Board in September to discuss filing an assault complaint. It took until April 1—the day after news of the Title IX investigation broke—for the board to contact her for a formal meeting.

Jill Cutler, who recently retired as Yale College’s assistant dean for academic affairs and served as secretary of the Executive Committee for 14 years, says that because the committee’s designated fact-finders were generally tenured faculty members (also true of the Grievance Board), they didn’t always have time to gather full evidence.

Many victims also felt frustrated by the strict confidentiality surrounding the process. Both the Grievance Board and the Executive Committee publish only cursory annual reports, listing resolutions of cases without names and with very few specifics. Therefore, a victim contemplating filing a complaint would have little sense of what the process might hold for her—what an “informal resolution” might look like, or how likely the Executive Committee would be to issue her assailant anything more than a “reprimand.”