Opinion

the podium | Patrick Witt

A sexual harassment policy that nearly ruined my life

“The destructive power that Yale’s and now Harvard’s new sexual misconduct policies wield is immense and grossly underestimated,” Patrick Witt writes.

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“The destructive power that Yale’s and now Harvard’s new sexual misconduct policies wield is immense and grossly underestimated,” Patrick Witt writes.

I am a first-year student at Harvard Law School, and I join the 28 members of our faculty who recently protested the university’s adoption of a new and expansive sexual harassment policy. While I agree wholeheartedly that universities have a moral as well as a legal obligation to provide their students with learning environments free of sexual harassment, I echo the faculty’s concern that this particular policy “will do more harm than good,” and I urge the university to reconsider its approach to addressing the problem.

If considered only in the abstract, many might wonder how a policy with such a laudable aim could draw any serious objections. And I might well have been among them — were it not for the fact that such a policy nearly ruined my life.

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Now, in the hopes that my painful and humiliating experience might yet produce some good by improving the final measures adopted, I offer my own story as a real-life example of how this well-intended policy can produce disastrous consequences if it remains detached from the most basic elements of fairness and due process that form the foundation of our legal system.

Harvard’s new policies are substantially similar to those already in effect at Yale, my alma mater. While an undergraduate there, my ex-girlfriend filed an informal complaint against me with the then-newly-created University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct. The committee summoned me to appear and styled the meeting as a form of mediation. Its chairman, a professor with no prior experience handling dispute resolution, told me that I could have a faculty adviser present but no lawyer, and instructed me to avoid my accuser, who, by that point, I had neither seen nor spoken to in weeks. The committee imposed an “expectation of confidentiality” on me so as to prevent any form of “retaliation” against my accuser.

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I would say more about what the accusation itself entailed if indeed I had such information. Under the informal complaint process, specific accusations are not disclosed to the accused, no fact-finding takes place, and no record is taken of the alleged misconduct. For the committee to issue an informal complaint, an accuser need only bring an accusation that, if substantiated, would constitute a violation of university policy concerning sexual misconduct. The informal “process” begins and ends at the point of accusation; the truth of the claim is immaterial.

When I demanded that fact-finding be done so that I could clear my name, I was told, “There’s nothing to clear your name of.” When I then requested that a formal complaint be lodged against me — a process that does involve investigation into the facts — I was told that such a course of action was impossible for me to initiate. At any time, however, my accuser retained the right to raise the complaint to a formal level. No matter, the Committee reassured me, the informal complaint did not constitute a disciplinary proceeding and nothing would be attached to my official record at Yale.

Coincidentally, the same day that my accuser decided to lodge the complaint against me, the news that I had been selected as a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship had been publicly announced. The news gained national attention, with stories in every major media outlet in print and online, because of my position as Yale’s starting quarterback and the fact that my interview date was set for the same day as my last Harvard-Yale football game.

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Days after the initial meeting with the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, I received a phone call from the Rhodes Trust informing me that they had received an anonymous tip that I had been accused by a fellow student of sexual misconduct. Next came a call from my summer employer, who, having received a similar anonymous tip, rescinded my offer of full-time employment upon graduation.

Months later, long after I had already withdrawn my Rhodes candidacy, the New York Times somehow also learned of the “confidential” complaint made against me, and that the Rhodes Trust had been aware of it. The paper then published a lengthy article revising the narrative of my pursuit of the scholarship and suggesting that I had intentionally misled media into believing a feel-good sports story that never was. The Times later printed a retraction, but the damage was already done; I was publicly humiliated. The memory of being told by the Committee that I had “nothing to clear my name of” was searing.

At the time the article was published, I was busy preparing for the NFL Combine, which I had been invited to as one of the top college quarterbacks in the country. Projected as a likely NFL draft pick before the accusation was made public, I went not only undrafted but completely untouched by any NFL team.

The destructive power that Yale’s and now Harvard’s new sexual misconduct policies wield is immense and grossly underestimated. By giving to unsubstantiated accusations the confoundingly difficult-to-define title of “informal complaint” — and denying accused students an opportunity to clear their names — these policies place the entire weight of the university’s reputation on the side of the accuser and against the accused. After all, if you didn’t do anything wrong, then why has your school recognized a complaint against you, informal or otherwise?

I cannot begin to describe how exasperatingly difficult it has been to try to explain to people what an informal complaint is and how there was never any evidence — nor any effort made to discover evidence — to substantiate the claim made by my accuser. My summer employer and the NFL certainly couldn’t understand it, and the media flat out didn’t care — the words “informal complaint” were all that was needed to establish my guilt in their eyes.

The complaint lodged against me caused me and my family immense grief, and as a simple Google search of my name reveals, its malignant effects have not abated. It cost me my reputation and credibility, the opportunity to become a Rhodes scholar, the full-time job offer I had worked so hard to attain, and the opportunity to achieve my childhood dream of playing in the NFL. I have had to address it with every prospective employer whom I’ve contacted, with every girl that I’ve dated since, and even with Harvard Law School during my admissions interview. It is a specter whose lingering presence is rooted in its inexplicability.

In closing, the reader might note that I have yet to even address the question of whether I was innocent of the accusation. I was. But it does not come up at any point above for the same reason that it never came up in any of the actions taken against me — because by the nature of the proceedings that follow from these new policies, it simply does not matter.

The denial of due process rights under these new procedures renders them dangerous and liable to severe abuse, and they are unworthy of the distinguished universities that have adopted them.

If they are allowed to stand at Harvard or any other university, it is only a matter of time before another student finds himself or herself reliving my experience.

To be sure, universities nationwide must fully address the issue of sexual misconduct on their campuses. But it is imperative that their efforts to fulfill this duty remain consistent with the principles of due process of law and equal treatment that form the bedrock of our legal system.

Related:

Rethink Harvard’s sexual harassment policy

The Podium: Harvard’s policy highlights the need for clarity

The Podium: Going to Harvard is a privilege, but safety is a right

Patrick Witt is a student at Harvard Law School.
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