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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Harvard is more focused on its own brand than protecting victims

Entitlement fueled by a sense of power, perfection, and over-inflated self-esteem.

Those are ingredients for what Michelle Maziar, a Harvard School of Education graduate and researcher, calls “a really dangerous cocktail.” It can lead to sexually aggressive language — being called “a sexy bitch” while walking past a Harvard student residence. Or, at the far end of the spectrum, it can end with sexual assault.

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According to Maziar, sexual assault is what happened last year to a friend of hers. In the aftermath, the blame-the-victim response from students, faculty, and administrators was “so appalling” that Maziar, 34, concluded, “Something is really wrong with the culture at Harvard.” To address it, she and Rory Gerberg, a 25-year-old public policy major at the Kennedy School of Government, co-founded “Harvard Students Demand Respect,” a university-wide coalition of graduate students.

Galvanized by recent headlines about a White House initiative aimed at exposing the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, the women — along with groups representing Harvard undergraduates and alumnae — are organizing to try to change not only Harvard’s sexual assault policy but also Harvard’s overall culture.

Of course, the problem of sexual assault on campus goes far beyond Harvard. The White House estimates that one out of five college women are victims of sexual assault. The Justice Department’s Office for Civil Rights is currently reviewing 55 institutions of higher education, including Harvard, for allegedly mishandling cases of sexual assault and harassment in violation of the gender equity law Title IX.

Of course, the problem of sexual assault on campus goes far beyond Harvard.

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But whether policies and attitudes will really change once the headlines fade is an open question.

Indeed, some critics contend that despite the White House PR blitz, it may actually be getting harder for victims to bring complaints. That’s because of a new federal law, known as the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, of SaVE Act, that went into effect in March.

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In its recommendations released in late April, the White House suggested that colleges and universities apply a “preponderance of evidence” standard to sexual assault complaints that come before school disciplinary boards. Under that standard, if those reviewing the complaint determine there is more than a 50 percent certainty of guilt, the complainant is entitled to relief.

SaVE, despite its comforting name, has the potential to set the bar much higher for victims to make their case. Although advocates lobbied for its inclusion, the act does not expressly call for the “preponderance of evidence” standard. Wendy Murphy, a lawyer specializing in gender issues, contends that leaves schools the option of applying the same “clear and convincing” standard that applies in certain quasi-criminal proceedings. And that ultimately undercuts Title IX, argues Murphy, who has filed a challenge to the new law in federal court. In light of the SaVE Act, Murphy contends, the federal guidelines released by the White House with such fanfare are just that — guidelines.

Nonetheless, among the goals of Harvard student activists is convincing the university to adopt the “preponderance of evidence” standard for sexual assault complaints.

That appears to be a likely outcome. Harvard has been working on this issue for more than a year. In April, after the publication of an anonymous letter written by a Harvard student who said she was the victim of sexual assault and institutional indifference, Harvard President Drew Faust announced the formation of a task force to address the university’s sexual assault policy. Its recommendations are currently under review by the federal Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

The Harvard students organizing for change say they are hopeful that university administrators are listening to them. But they also understand any institutional resistance.

Addressing the problem means “acknowledging it exists,” Gerberg said. “Harvard is a ‘brand’ name; it doesn’t want sexual assault associated with its brand.”

And with the Harvard name comes higher expectations, echoes MaryRose Mazzola, 23, another Kennedy School student pushing for more awareness. “People expect more.”

Yet sexual assault may be the one great equalizer, in that it happens to students on campuses everywhere. The distinction lies in how college administrations ultimately respond to it — and how seriously they take the need to change a culture that encourages it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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