In a reversal, Tufts University has accepted a finding by the US Department of Education that its policies on how to handle sexual assault cases have been in violation of a law mandating gender equity on college campuses.
Last week, Tufts defiantly backed out of an agreement with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights after being told that it was violating the law, known as Title IX. The university issued a statement at the time saying it “could not, in good faith, allow our community to believe that we are not in compliance with such an important law.”
In response, the Office for Civil Rights warned that it could move to terminate Tufts’ federal funding if the university did not comply, a result so catastrophic that it virtually required Tufts to reach some understanding with the government.
Tufts president Anthony P. Monaco said in an interview Friday that Tufts initially had walked away from the agreement because officials did not know the basis for the government’s finding. He said he received that clarity in a phone conversation last week and a meeting in Washington on Thursday with Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education.
The issues, Monaco said, involved a number of Tufts’ policies on handling sexual assault complaints, and he said Tufts submitted proposed changes to those policies to the government Monday.
“I really want to put this behind us now and work forward in partnership with OCR to make our campus as safe as possible,” he said. “What’s really important here is the safety of our campus, that our students who are victims feel well supported, that we have all the measures for education and prevention in place, and that we will not tolerate sexual assault on our campuses.”
Lhamon praised Tufts “for taking swift action to cure its breach” of its signed agreement. “I look forward to working with president Monaco and the university community to ensure the safety of all students on campus,” she added.
The action against Tufts on April 28 came in a week when the problem of sexual assault on campus was thrust in the national spotlight when the White House announced new guidelines holding colleges more accountable for how they treat victims of violence.
The Tufts investigation stems from a 2010 complaint from a woman who said the school discriminated against her after she reported that she was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend at the time. The government found a series of violations by the school that it said created a hostile environment, including taking too long to investigate the case, allowing prejudicial information about the alleged victim to be used in the disciplinary process, and hampering her participation in a university leadership program that the accused student was also involved in.
While the school has revamped its policies in the years since that case, the Office for Civil Rights found problems with some current practices.
Colby Bruno of the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, who represented the alleged victim, said the outcome of the Tufts case puts other colleges on notice to take sexual assault seriously.
“And if you don’t, you will suffer not just negative public relations consequences, but also the possibility of revocation of federal funding,” Bruno said.