The decision by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate Yale in response to a Title IX complaint written by 16 students and alumni marks what will hopefully be a turning point not only for Yale, but for universities across the nation. With an estimated 20 percent of women likely to be victims of sexual assault while in college, the way universities across the nation deal with issues of sexual assault, rape and public acts of misogyny has to change.
On Monday, just four days after the complaint was made public and started to circulate on national media sources, Vice President Biden spoke in front of students at the University of New Hampshire against sexual assault and the university policies that make it difficult and sometimes impossible to combat. “Rape is rape is rape, and the sooner universities make that clear, the sooner we’ll begin to make progress on campuses,” Biden said. His message was clear: Colleges aren’t doing enough to change the university atmosphere that makes people think that rape is not rape if the girl was drunk or she knew her attacker or the physical evidence is long gone.
A report compiled by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) found that universities rarely expel men who are found guilty of sexual assault: In cases at 130 schools that applied for federal grants to better deal with assault, only about 10 to 25 percent of men found guilty were expelled.
This startling statistic can be explained, but not excused. Universities are hampered by limited resources and time when dealing with sexual assault cases. Professors with classes to teach, papers to grade and office hours to hold who are often ill-equipped and untrained are assigned to be “fact finders” on sexual assault cases. Without the resources to test physical evidence, these cases often dissolve into bitter “he said, she said” debates. Even if the victim has gone to the police, few prosecutors are willing to take cases with few or no witnesses, limited physical evidence and attackers who claim the sex was consensual.
Worse still, the government bodies that are supposed to monitor our colleges have been noticeably silent on this issue. According to the report done by the CPI, colleges are legally obligated to report crimes on campus. However, over a period of 20 years only six colleges have been found in violation. The DOE can also rule that universities are in violation of laws that protect women from discrimination. Out of 24 complaints between 1998 and 2008, only five resulted in guilty findings.
News of the federal investigation has thrown Yale once again into the national spotlight, but it is certainly not the only school where sexual assault, or the management of assault, is an issue. Students at Princeton, Dickinson, American, Dartmouth and many others have taken issue with their universities’ policies on sexual assault. At Dickinson, students protested the way the university manages sexual assault two years ago. After seeing no change, they protested again last month, this time with more students and clearer goals. Students at American University protested just this week when their president refused to sign off on a proposal for a grant that would give the school $300,000 to create programs that would help prevent and deal with cases of sexual assault.
Yet, there is hope for these universities and there is hope for victims of rape. Hopefully Biden’s clearer guidelines for what Title IX actually requires of universities will encourage disciplinary bodies to change how they deal with cases of sexual assault. If universities are found guilty of violating these laws, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will hopefully hold them more accountable. Russlynn Ali, who was appointed assistant secretary of civil rights in 2009, has said that the office will use all of the considerable resources at its disposal, including withholding federal funds, to ensure that women on college campuses are safe from sexual violence.
The federal investigation of Yale’s sexual climate will hopefully send a message to all universities and university students that rape will no longer be tolerated or excused. Even if the woman knew her attacker, even if the details are hazy, even if she had sex with him before: rape is rape is rape.
Miranda Lewis is a junior in Branford College.