In the fall of 1969, nearly 600 women stepped onto the grounds of Yale College as students for the first time.
During the 45 years since Yale became co-educational, the University’s treatment of sexual misconduct has evolved substantially: An institution that once had no term for “sexual harassment” now has a University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct that hears dozens of complaints every year.
This evolution has come slowly. And while multiple reports and committees have been convened to address the issue, some of their suggestions have been taken into account and implemented, but others have not.
Over the past month, the University’s procedures have again faced criticism. On Nov. 10, UWC Chair David Post convened an internal town hall for UWC members to discuss concerns they might have about recent media scrutiny of the committee.
While neither the meeting nor its contents were made public, a UWC member who asked to remain anonymous, citing confidentiality concerns, told the News on Nov. 9 that the town hall would be a good opportunity for the committee to address some “cracks in the foundation” of its policies.
A BLIND EYE
One evening in 1974, a freshman student returned to her room visibly shaken. She told her roommate, Lisa Stone ’78 SPH ’82, that she had been sexually harassed by a teacher. Though deeply distressed, the two women did not know how to address the situation. Sexual harassment was not a phrase used at the time, let alone discussed on campus — Stone said as a freshman she did not even know what feminism was.
“Neither of us thought about saying anything to anyone,” Stone said. “We liked our [residential] college dean at the time, but we couldn’t imagine telling him.”
But that was the only mechanism in place at the time for addressing complaints of sexual misconduct, said Ronni Alexander ’77. After her flute teacher allegedly raped her while she was an undergraduate in 1975, Alexander said, she was told that the only method to file a complaint with the University was to inform her residential college dean, who would sit her and her alleged rapist down to “talk about it.”
Two years later, at the request of the Yale Corporation, Ann Olivarius ’77 LAW ’86 SOM ’86 compiled a 27-page report on the status of women at the University. The report detailed dozens of student complaints with a University that they believed had not made a home for them.
“No one imagined that we would find legal evidence against a good number of faculty members for having raped and sexually assaulted their women students, and in one case, a male member of the community,” Olivarius said.
Later that year, Alexander, Olivarius, Stone and two other plaintiffs, Pamela Price ’78 and Margery Reifler ’80, sued Yale, alleging that sexual harassment by male faculty members — and Yale’s failure to provide a grievance process — constituted sex discrimination and violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. It was the first lawsuit ever to use Title IX in charges of sexual harassment against an educational institution.
The plaintiffs were not seeking monetary compensation, Olivarius said — they simply wanted the University to institute a central tracking system to keep track of people who committed sexual misconduct.
The women did not win their suit, but they established an important precedent, Olivarius said. The court upheld their argument that sexual harassment constituted sex discrimination under Title IX — an argument that had never been made before.
In addition, Yale instituted a grievance process, in the form of a Sexual Harassment Grievance Board. The SHGB was charged with handling informal complaints, while formal complaints between students were to go through the Executive Committee — a body originally created to adjudicate violations of Yale’s undergraduate regulations, such as plagiarism or cheating, said former Executive Committee chair and history of science and medicine professor William Summers.
But the SHGB had major flaws, Stone said.
The most serious weakness, Stone said, was that after an investigation, the decision of whether or not to proceed with any disciplinary action was in the hands of one administrator. If that individual was “sexist or a harasser,” Stone said, the chance that sanctions would be imposed was low.
Today, sexual misconduct cases are heard before a panel made up of members of the UWC. Following the investigation and hearing, the panel writes a report detailing its findings of fact, conclusions and recommendations. The final decision, however, is still rendered by one individual — the dean of Yale College for undergraduate respondents or the provost for faculty respondents. Under Yale’s current policy, the final decision maker has the power to accept, reject or modify in whole or in part the panel’s conclusions or recommendations, including sanctions.
“One person should not be responsible,” Stone said. “That was Yale’s idea for controlling the damage and not having to fire anyone.”
BLUEPRINT FOR REFORM
In the years after the lawsuit, the University released dozens of reports on the status of the women, from plans to double the number of women faculty to accounts of campus sexism.
In 2001, the University convened the Women Faculty Forum to foster gender equity and highlight the accomplishments of female community members. Eight years later, in response to various complaints it had received regarding Yale’s procedures for dealing with sexual misconduct complaints, the WFF created a Sexual Misconduct Working Group, co-chaired by astronomy professor Priya Natarajan and School of Management professor Constance Bagley, who is currently involved in a gender discrimination lawsuit against the University.
The working group published a Report on Sexual Misconduct at Yale in October of that year — a 76-page document that evaluated the University’s mechanisms to handle complaints of sexual misconduct.
Then-WFF Chair and School of Medicine professor Shirley McCarthy said sexual harassment cases until that point had been inadequately managed. Each school had different resolution procedures in place, some of which were opaque and not easily accessible. According to the 2009 report, the previous procedures to handle sexual misconduct differed based on the identity of the complainant, the identity of the dean under whose authority the complainant fell and the identity of the respondent.
For example, if the respondent to a Yale College complainant was another undergraduate, the complainant could choose to proceed with the case through the Yale College Executive Committee or the Yale College SHGB, but a separate procedure –existed if the respondent was under the authority of another dean.
“From the University and faculty side, we thought we bent over backwards to give [students] more options so the students would be in control,” Summers said. “That confused students.”
McCarthy said that the resolution procedures at the time also raised questions of impartiality. Since cases were usually adjudicated by members of the school in which the alleged misconduct had occurred, McCarthy said a decision-maker could be biased — for example, in cases involving a faculty respondent who made significant financial contributions to the school.
While the WFF drew up its recommendations for a revised grievance process, several highly publicized incidents of alleged sexual misconduct rocked the campus. In 2008, pledges of the Zeta Psi fraternity posed outside of the Yale Women’s Center holding a sign that said, “We Love Yale Sluts.” Two years later, Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges took to Old Campus shouting, “No means yes, and yes means anal.”
On Oct. 15, 2009, the Working Group presented the report to then-University President Richard Levin, then-Provost Peter Salovey and then-General Counsel Dorothy Robinson. Salovey and Levin promptly responded that the University would convene a committee to respond to the recommendations, Bagley said.
Still, on March 15, 2011, fed up with what they saw as Yale’s unresponsiveness to a “hostile environment” for women, 16 students and alumni filed a formal complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The complaint alleged that Yale had violated its Title IX obligations by failing to properly address sexual misconduct, said Alexandra Brodsky ’12 LAW ’16, one of the students who filed the complaint.
“There had been a real tradition of sweeping things under the rug, keeping them quiet and never actually taking action against accused students,” Brodsky said.
There is still significant student confusion on the University’s sexual misconduct procedures. Fourteen of 16 students interviewed earlier this month said they had no prior knowledge of UWC procedures.
Two weeks after the complaint was filed, the OCR opened a formal investigation into Yale’s Title IX compliance.
On June 15, 2012, the OCR announced that it had entered into a Voluntary Resolution Agreement with Yale. Because Yale had agreed to create a University-wide Title IX coordinator position, train community members on sexual misconduct and establish the UWC, the OCR said it would not find Yale in noncompliance with Title IX, and therefore would not implement sanctions.
University Title IX Coordinator and Deputy Provost Stephanie Spangler said that Yale had already been moving to implement these policies before the Title IX complaint was filed, citing the 2009 report.
“When the federal Title IX investigation concluded in June 2012, these initiatives were noted in the Voluntary Resolution Agreement, but they were already well-established,” she said.
McCarthy noted, however, that the Title IX complaint had likely spurred the University into finalizing the measures more quickly.
Brodsky said that while the UWC is a vast improvement over the complaint mechanisms that existed while she was an undergraduate, she feels the University has still not appropriately punished guilty respondents.
“It has gotten better — when we filed our complaint, no one had ever been expelled for sexual misconduct, and that has happened since. But I think the school is sort of hedging right now,” Brodsky said. “I think it’s doing a better job of finding people responsible, but then not really doing anything as a result.”
Both Brodsky and Olivarius said that Yale has espoused a desire to be a leader in issues of sexual misconduct and women’s education but has not shown true initiative to fulfill that promise.
Instead, Olivarius said, Yale has chosen to accept minimum standards rather than robustly embrace the law.
“You can’t half-heartedly commit to equality,” Brodsky said.
UWC, THREE YEARS IN
Now in its fourth year of operation, the UWC has seen between 40 and 70 complaints each year, according to the annual Reports of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct published by the Provost’s Office.
On Nov. 1, Yale once again became the focus of national scrutiny when The New York Times published a front-page story about allegations of sexual harassment against the School of Medicine’s cardiology chief, Michael Simons. In particular, the article revealed that the UWC had recommended that Simons be permanently removed from his chairmanship and banned for five years from any high administrative position. But Provost Benjamin Polak only suspended Simons for 18 months.
Bagley noted that the 2009 WFF report, of which she had been an author, had not envisaged a final decision-maker in its recommendations for the creation of a UWC. While the report had suggested that the provost be allowed to stay the imposition of sanctions that he or she found inappropriate, the UWC was supposed to be the main adjudicative body, she said.
“We felt that the UWC should be the one having the final say in these cases,” Bagley said. “They’re the ones that are closest to the facts and have been duly empowered to render these decisions.”
In the past weeks, beyond the UWC’s internal town hall, the University has made other moves to address concerns about the gender climate on campus, including convening a medical school task force on gender equity, appointing a deputy provost for faculty development and diversity and publishing the findings of the February 2014 Yale Diversity Summit.
Still, Alexander said that while issues of gender equity and sexual misconduct have undeniably improved since she filed her suit over thirty years ago, there is still work to be done.
“In those days, sex discrimination was really in-your-face. It was really easy to see,” she said. “Then things got better. Now it’s so much more difficult to see that it makes it much more difficult to fight. If you can’t see it, it’s easier not to look. And then it comes as a really big shock when people find out it’s still there.”