Almost 50 years ago, after Congress passed Title IX to outlaw sex discrimination in higher education, universities created paths of recourse for survivors of campus sexual assault and harassment in an effort to create safe learning environments for all students. But change has been far too slow. A 2019 study by the Association of American Universities (AAU) shows that the occurrence of sexual harassment at universities has remained constant for the last 30 years.
The recent controversy at Harvard surrounding John Comaroff, a professor of anthropology and African and African American studies, underscores one of the changes that Congress ought to make if Title IX is to live up its promise. Universities should no longer assess harassment claims themselves, a practice that is rife with real or perceived conflicts of interest, and should instead bring in third-party investigators to probe allegations.
Harvard’s Title IX compliance goes beyond the law’s requirements; the university mandates sexual harassment training, offers ways to anonymously report abuse, and devotes an entire office to investigating allegations. After the allegations of sexual harassment against Comaroff surfaced, the university investigated, corroborating some of those allegations and placing him on unpaid leave earlier this year.
Then, however, on Feb. 8, three female graduate students who were dissatisfied with Harvard’s handling of the case sued the university, alleging the university had ignored a decade of sexual harassment and retaliation by Comaroff and allowed a system that “protects powerful faculty — and the university’s reputation — at students’ expense.”
Comaroff denies the allegations against him, and Harvard has rejected the criticism of its handling of the case.
The facts will, presumably, come out as the case goes forward, and it’s premature to judge whether Harvard did anything wrong. But it’s understandable why any student, at any university, would feel distrustful of an investigation carried out by an internal office, no matter how diligent that investigation may have been. And that’s ultimately a problem inherent in the law, not any particular college or university.
Data show that women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault and harassment than men, and that queer and transgender students are especially vulnerable. Compared with graduate students, undergraduate students are more likely to experience sexual harassment, but graduate students are five times more likely than undergraduates to be harassed by staff or faculty members.
And for graduate students, the university is more than just a place to learn: It’s a workplace, where scholars begin their academic careers. Graduate students rely on professors for letters of recommendation for grants and research projects, mentoring, and introduction to their colleagues in the field. It is often difficult for graduate students to distance themselves from big names in the field, even if those academics have a bad reputation for personal behavior, without forgoing professional opportunities. A 2018 study shows the “halo effect” within academia, referring to the way graduates of prestigious programs get an advantage simply for having recognizable scholars as advisors.
The strong networks among colleagues and the ubiquitous threat of retaliation work together to create an environment ripe for coercion. The tenure system, which makes it extremely difficult to fire professors, also weakens accountability. A tenured position at a university is meant to bring freedom and security to professors. But one of its downsides is that some faculty members interpret that freedom as a carte blanche.
Title IX should be the institutional check against harassment, but it has a structural problem. Its offices are housed inside the school. Staffers are paid by the school, and they report to the school. In one lawsuit against a Michigan university, students say that those responsible for investigations have “turned a blind eye or were deliberately indifferent to reported sexual assaults.” Although complaints are supposed to be anonymous, that’s often impractical in small departments. Further complaints against Title IX investigations — some of which are mentioned in the suit against Harvard — include that officers disregard crucial testimony and witnesses, and that officers behave in a discouraging and confusing way when students file complaints.
In the past, Harvard has said that allowing third-party arbitration for Title IX and gender-based discrimination could “violate federal regulations.” If so, Congress should make it clear that appointing a neutral fact-finder is not only allowed but is also a good way to build confidence in the system for adjudicating complaints so that colleges and universities can finally deliver on Title IX’s promise of campuses free from discrimination and harassment.
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