Navigating a complaint of sexual misconduct on a college campus is an inherently difficult task: It often involves conflicting accounts, high emotions and little evidence. Partially due to the complex rules and regulations that govern University processes for hearing such complaints, Yale encourages both complainants and respondents in misconduct hearings to retain an advisor for personal as well as logistical support.
But, according to a report last spring by the Yale College Council and Yale Women’s Center, these advisors may not always be effective. Respondents in particular, the report’s authors said, may have trouble finding a capable advisor, as their traditional choices — their residential college deans — may not have expertise in misconduct proceedings or could even turn down their request for advice if they perceive a conflict of interest, such as if both parties are in the same college. Complainants, by contrast, have ready access to knowledgeable advisors at the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education Center.
In response to the YCC and Women’s Center report, the University’s Title IX Steering Committee promised in April to create a joint pool of advisors for both complainants and respondents. The pool, which will be finalized this fall, will be available to anybody who participates in a formal hearing through the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, and all potential advisors will be trained in Yale’s sexual misconduct policies and UWC procedure, said UWC chair and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology professor David Post.
“Because of the sensitive nature of the hearing, having to ask multiple people to be your advisor can be difficult, so a designated pool of advisors that are available to respondents too ensures that everyone will have someone who is willing to assist them through the process,” said Elizabeth Villarreal ’16, one of the report’s authors.
Knowledgeable advisors could be a key step in clarifying Yale’s oftentimes murky sexual misconduct procedures: The YCC and Women’s Center report found that almost half of a group of 75 students surveyed — some of whom had been through the complaint process themselves — indicated confusion or misinformation about Yale’s policies.
Previously, Post said, the UWC would help parties who requested help finding an advisor on a case-by-case basis. Now, complainants or respondents will receive a list of potential advisors whom the UWC specifically invited to the role for their experience in similar advisory capacities.
“The invitees to the new advisor pool were drawn broadly from the Yale community, across undergraduate, graduate and professional schools, and have diverse backgrounds and experience,” Post wrote in an email. “Careful consideration was given to those with previous experience in disciplinary proceedings and those who have served in an advisory capacity to students, faculty or staff.”
Training for the new advising pool will begin in late September, Post said. University Title IX Coordinator and Deputy Provost Stephanie Spangler said recruitment is still ongoing, although a few invitations have already been accepted. SHARE advisors will also be on the list and will remain an available resource for complainants, as will any other advisors who have previous experience with the UWC.
Karin Shedd ’16, who previously filed a formal complaint with the UWC, praised the decision, but she added that a more important step in promoting fairness in the hearing process would be ensuring that all fact-finders — who interview complainants and respondents about the incident in question and present their findings to the hearing panel — are independent and not employed by the University, as stipulated in the UWC procedures. The fact-finder in her own case, she alleged, was actually a Yale employee.
Across the country, some respondents, and even some complainants, have shifted away from internal advising at all and have retained attorneys during sexual misconduct hearings.
Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — an organization that has often criticized universities for curbing the rights of respondents during misconduct hearings — told the News in April that schools should allow attorneys to play a more active role in defending accused students. Currently, UWC procedure states that advisors can help parties prepare for meetings related to a complaint but may not speak for their advisee at any interview or hearing or submit documents on his or her behalf.
“Schools at the very least should be providing students with the right to hire lawyers who can actively participate and not just sit there as potted plants,” he said. “It’s a safeguard on making sure that someone is representing the students’, and only the students’, interests.”