Feldman: A necessary wake-up call

I can understand the ambivalence that many feel toward the Department of Education’s investigation into Yale’s Title IX compliance. Yale is an institution with benefits we reap every day — could it really be acting so egregiously that the federal government has to step in?

Unfortunately, as I have found from personal experience, the answer to that question is yes. During my time here I was forced to navigate Yale’s internal discipline mechanisms on behalf of a friend who had been the victim of sexual harassment. In my attempts to have her perpetrator punished, I spoke with members of the Sexual Harassment Grievance Board (SHGP), SHARE, the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs (OEOP) and the General Counsel’s office.

Yale was laughably inept at investigating the complaint. On further reflection, this appears to be how the system is designed. Those I talked to, while by no means mean-spirited, lacked the training, information and authority to take action. The SHGB, for example, cannot discipline students, and the OEOP employs only a single director and her assistant. By comparison, Yale’s Office of Institutional Research, which compiles statistics about Yale, employs five people. Only the General Counsel’s office, whose mission is to protect Yale from liability, moved quickly and decisively — but only to stifle further investigation of the complaint, and to try to settle as quietly as possible.

Sadly, this is nothing new for Yale. These recent failures are a part of a long history of troubling responses to sexual harassment and assault. Though Yale was forced to implement grievance procedures after the landmark Alexander v. Yale lawsuit, they still fall short. A few years ago Yale was found to have underreported rates of sexual crime on campus. Furthermore, Yale does not inform students of their right to a full investigation of their complaint, and to be informed of its outcome. For years, Yale has constantly reviewed its internal procedures, generating endless reports but little real change. Students only learn about the realities of sexual harassment when it happens to a friend, or when a victim has the resources and determination to sue Yale or to write about her experience.

Yale has obviously not prioritized the issue. In a lengthy survey on student life sent out last week, the administration asked hundreds of questions about academic and extracurricular experiences at Yale, but not one regarding sexual safety and violence. Nor does Yale dedicate sufficient resources to the problem. It will take Yale only two years to set up a new college in Singapore halfway around the world — it took Yale just as long to conclude that it should consolidate Yale’s disparate bodies into one University-Wide Committee.

I suspect that the aim of this recent reaction is to protect, as one administrator crudely put it last week, Yale’s “brand.” The Yale brand ensures its global prestige and influence; public allegations and confirmations of sexual offense on campus tarnish that reputation. To publicly punish those offenders would be to acknowledge what repeated surveys have shown: that up to 20 percent of undergraduate women in the U.S. are a victim of an attempted or successful sexual assault. By that count, it is likely that hundreds of Yale women are victims; of those many cases, only a handful make it to the Executive Committee each year. The vast majority are withdrawn, and those that are not have always resulted in a perfunctory reprimand.

The OCR investigation is an opportunity for Yale to face up to its failure to protect its students. But its rhetoric so far indicates a dramatic lack of understanding. Dean Miller tried to highlight Yale’s “extraordinary number and range of initiatives,” but this array of programs obscures the fact that there is no single effective vehicle for reporting complaints and getting results.

Yale must admit that what Dean Miller called a culture of “civility and inclusion” all too often means civility toward and inclusion of perpetrators at the expense of their victims. The truth is that a woman who attends Yale faces a risk of sexual harassment or assault. In that case, Yale expects her to deal with the shame, isolation and self-questioning that accompanies such a terrible experience while navigating a series of unhelpful bodies that at most will lead to quiet, nominal repercussions. No wonder so few women report sexual crimes at Yale.

The men and women who filed this complaint have shed light on a shameful part of Yale that desperately deserves attention. I sincerely hope the administration will use this wake-up call to create a system that effectively protects students from sexual harassment and assault. The women of Yale deserve as much.

Andrew Feldman is a senior in Morse College.

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