In the wake of a steep rise in sexual assault complaints at Harvard, the university’s administrative board rewrote its policy last spring on the way it will handle such complaints. In an effort to avoid the tedious and sometimes inconclusive investigations into “he said, she said” cases, it has refused to investigate any complaints where the victim does not have some “corroborating evidence.” Certainly “corroborating evidence” is loosely defined, according to a Crimson article as “e-mails, a documented visit to [Harvard University Health Services] or the testimony of someone who spoke to the victim immediately following the incident.” But in what amounts to an ill-advised nod to the U.S. legal system, Harvard’s new policy on sexual assault is an embarrassment to that institution.
The system that we have at Yale now is far from perfect. Students do still stand a chance of being falsely accused, but it is unlikely that anyone would want to subject him or herself to the Executive Committee process as a method of personal revenge. If such people are out there, then I condemn them for doing a grave injustice to victims of actual assault. Both ExComm and the Sexual Harassment Grievance Board are known to be extremely circumspect in their investigations, so such a manipulation of the system would probably be caught early. The Yale boards need not use language so liberally and dangerously as Harvard did in an attempt to stem the number of these unlikely cases.
In light of this, students must be cognizant of the fact that in certain situations they may be at risk (albeit, given the number of sexual assaults reported, at very low risk) of being accused of sexual assault, and they should use their common sense to avoid those circumstances. If this impinges on what some see as their intrinsic right to a drunken hookup, so be it. Many students have long been aware that they are putting themselves at risk of being assaulted when they act in certain ways — walking alone at night or getting drunk — and they often suffer the consequences of their actions. Similarly, students who put themselves in situations where they can be accused of rape may suffer consequences as well. It isn’t fair. Neither is the fact that I can’t walk alone at night. But I still don’t walk alone at night.
The column in the Sept. 17 edition of the Yale Daily News that applauds Harvard’s change of policy deserves little comment. The author’s bizarre and paranoid assertion that feminist groups espouse “the assumption that women never lie and men always do” is symptomatic of a shallow, tired viewpoint that he has borrowed from other inarticulate and self-consciously inflammatory stooges. In addition, in order to dumb down the issue to yet another case of Man vs. Woman, the author insists on classifying all attackers as men and all victims as women. It is worth pointing out that while the majority of victims are female and the majority of attackers are male, there are and will continue to be many instances where this is not the case.
But he does raise one important issue. He asks why “campus systems of justice [should] be any different from those utilized in criminal courtrooms across the country.” It is a fair question. The answer is that Yale does not function as a country. It is a private institution that decides who its member are, and it has an obligation not only to protect its members, male and female, but also to establish an atmosphere of safety and support, if for no other reason than to remain a competitive institution that continues to attract strong applicants.
That safe and supportive atmosphere demands that the institution go above and beyond the normal bounds of the bureaucratic, if careful, judiciary system, and it includes avoiding the contentious attitude toward survivors of sexual assault that Harvard has taken. I do not doubt that if Harvard’s policy takes hold and is well-publicized, it will negatively affect its applicant pool. The punitive system at a private university should and does work differently from the legal system of the United States. If, as the author implies, ExComm does demand less stringent evidence than a court of law, it also deals a lesser punishment. The guilty are suspended or expelled, not jailed.
Unfortunately, the experience of sexual assault is still so steeped in shame that few victims ever bring their attackers to justice. Harvard’s policy obligates victims, within a few hours of experiencing intense physical and psychological trauma, to immediately relive that trauma before another person. This will discourage even more victims from coming forward. Under the current policy, someone who was raped at Harvard and has no “corroborating evidence” will be unable even to get an audience with the administrative committee. All of us at Yale, men and women, should count ourselves lucky that no such policy change has taken place here.
Lindsay Nordell is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.