Early in the morning on a fall day in 2020, a Harvard student was abruptly awoken at a friend’s out-of-state home by a classmate sexually assaulting her.
The female student notified Harvard officials after the attack but was discouraged by the university’s Title IX process, which sounded onerous and confusing. She also heard from peers and advocates that the process often did not result in discipline. She turned instead to the criminal justice system. Nearly two years later, a judge found the attacker guilty of sexual abuse, a misdemeanor, and sentenced him to a year of probation.
Finally, with a criminal conviction, the woman was hopeful that Harvard would discipline her attacker. But Harvard insisted that it must conduct its own investigation to determine if its Title IX policies had been violated before disciplining the attacker. As a result, the convicted student remained on campus for the past two semesters, leaving the woman fearful of run-ins with him. And because Harvard’s disciplinary proceedings are confidential, the woman does not know whether Harvard took any action at all.
Her experience reflects the murky process that unfolds at universities after sexual assaults involving students or employees are reported. Colleges have struggled for decades with a pervasive culture of assault and harassment. But experts say a once imperfect process for holding perpetrators accountable is now broken and in desperate need of repair — and politicians are partly to blame.
Advocates and legal experts said that the situation at Harvard is not an anomaly and underscores just how increasingly complicated — and often dysfunctional — the process is for victims aiming to hold their assailants accountable. The problem has been exacerbated by politicians’ shifting interpretations of Title IX, a federal law that dictates how universities respond to sexual misconduct.
The Trump administration expanded protections for students accused of sexual assault on campuses and allowed colleges to largely ignore cases occurring off campus, even on study-abroad programs. (Some colleges, including Harvard, say they still investigate assaults that occur off campus, but there is no federal mandate to do so).
The 2020 regulations are lengthy and confusing, even to legal experts. But the thrust of the policy is that colleges must treat the accused as innocent until proved guilty by Title IX investigations, even when the accused has been criminally convicted. The Title IX investigations can take months, sometimes even longer than criminal trials. Federal funding is on the line for schools that do not follow the rules.
Too often the investigations result in no discipline, experts said, because Trump’s rules raised the burden of proof for campus sexual assault cases. Experts said Title IX investigators typically need phone or video recording of a confession before disciplining a student. Such evidence is often missing in sexual assault cases.
The Biden administration is expected to release updated Title IX rules in October, but advocates worry that Biden’s changes will not go far enough to remedy the gridlock that currently results from Title IX investigations.
“I wouldn’t recommend any victim go into [a Title IX investigation] at this point because it’s just going to waste your time and slow down your healing process,” said Nicole Bedera, a Minnesota sociologist who studies sexual violence on college campuses. Universities, Bedera said, “have favored symbolic measures over substance.”
Policies that require the schools — even if a criminal conviction exists — to conduct investigations of the allegations before discipline can occur are not always clearly communicated to students.
The Harvard student, who graduated in May, expressed exasperation with the university’s process. (The student is not being named because she is a victim of sexual assault. The student also requested that her attacker be kept anonymous to further protect her identity.)
“I would keep asking, ‘Is there really nothing you can do to discipline a student who has been found guilty of a misdemeanor of sexual abuse?’ ” the survivor said in a recent interview, recalling her conversations with Harvard officials following the conviction. “[Harvard officials kept] diverting the conversation or [I received] blank stares back. I felt like I was losing my mind.”
A Harvard spokesperson said the university does not comment on student matters. Harvard does withhold diplomas of students who are not in good standing, which includes an open Title IX investigation.
Amanda Walsh, deputy director of the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, said that it is “really disheartening” for survivors who have endured the pain of a criminal trial to learn that a university does not sanction a fellow student even after a conviction.
“Sometimes [the Title IX] process is just as long or longer than a criminal case,” Walsh said. “That results in a lot of feelings of betrayal that victims have toward the institution.”
Title IX of the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by Richard Nixon 51 years ago to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex in educational and athletic activities. Advocates point to the rapid expansion of women’s participation in sports as proof of the law’s success.
Over the years, however, the law has expanded to encompass sexual harassment and sexual assault, because such incidents of misconduct can impair equal access to education. The law’s record on reducing sexual assault on campuses and offering due process to alleged perpetrators has been much spottier than its athletic contributions.
About 13 percent of all college students experience rape or sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. But research shows that few of those incidents are reported. And even fewer result in meaningful discipline on campus, a USA Today investigation found.
In a case with echoes of the one at Harvard, a former Boston University student woke up on the floor of a friend’s dorm room on Commonwealth Avenue in April 2021 to a classmate sexually assaulting her. The survivor reported the crime to campus police several weeks later, just after she graduated. In a recent interview, she said she believed they would launch both a criminal probe and a Title IX investigation. The assailant graduated in 2021 and then enrolled in BU’s dental school as a graduate student.
The case went to trial and in May a jury found Joseph Hraiz guilty of two felony counts of rape and one felony count of indecent assault and battery, according to court documents. He was sentenced to two and a half to three years at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster. He is appealing his conviction.
The survivor said she contacted the university after the trial ended and learned that because she filed the police report after graduation, no Title IX investigation was opened. She was shocked and disappointed to learn that there were more steps ahead before the university could discipline the attacker.
In emails shared by the woman, BU told her that even though the attacker had been convicted and incarcerated, the university needed to conduct its own review — which is ongoing — to determine if Hraiz violated university sexual misconduct policies before he could be disciplined.
In the emails, a BU official asked the victim and her attorney for court transcripts, where Hraiz was incarcerated, and the name of his attorney. The victim said that BU told her (and her attorney) that Hraiz remains enrolled at the university.
“Is this really about getting to the truth or are they finding a reason why my rape may be excusable?” the survivor said. “[Boston University] wants to be able to play jury themselves and it’s causing pain and trauma to survivors.”
A spokesperson for Boston University declined to comment on student disciplinary matters. He added that the university’s policy says the outcome of any criminal prosecution is not determinative of whether Title IX sexual misconduct occurred under the university’s policy.
Nancy Gertner, a former US federal judge and senior lecturer at Harvard Law School, said that interpretation and enforcement of Title IX has changed drastically in recent years.
The administration of Barack Obama put colleges “on notice that you’re going to lose funding if you don’t comply with Title IX,” and investigate reports of sexual assault, Gertner said. It was also widely believed that the criminal justice system was not welcoming to female survivors at the time, Gertner said, and many believed that universities would be better equipped to investigate such matters.
The guidance from the federal government led to universities increasing resources for survivors and adopting “the most pro-complainant policies that you can imagine,” Gertner said, as colleges were nervous about veering out of compliance and losing federal funding.
But that didn’t last long. The Trump administration enforced a vastly different interpretation of Title IX amid public outcry that male students accused of sexual assault were not given due process on campuses. Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, said at the time that the final rules, which were implemented in 2020, balance “the scales of justice on campuses across America.”
The Trump-era Title IX rules, which universities are still operating under, narrowed the definition of sexual harassment and required that universities hold in-person hearings with cross-examinations of victims. University leaders and victim advocates feared the live hearings would deter survivors from coming forward.
“I don’t think there has ever been an area of a law that you’ve seen the kind of swings that Title IX has seen,” Gertner said.
The changing rules contribute to the confusion surrounding Title IX, for university administrators trying to balance compliance, help victims, and avoid potential lawsuits from students alleging they were not given a fair trial process. Each time the rules change, schools have to assess internal procedures, make changes to stay in compliance, and educate their campuses on the changes, said Rob McCarron, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.
“It creates a risk of confusion and uncertainty,” McCarron said.
That leaves survivors on campuses navigating confusing, often contradictory policies.
Because university disciplinary proceedings have a lower standard of evidence than the criminal justice system, theoretically colleges should be disciplining more students than the criminal justice system, but research shows that’s not the case, said Bedera, the sociologist.
There is no federal reporting mandate for the outcomes of college Title IX investigations. Just two states, New York and Maryland, have such reporting requirements for their public universities, Bedera said.
“I found that there was really no amount of evidence that universities would consider sufficient to take [disciplinary] action, short of a video confession or a phone call confession,” Bedera said.
Shelley Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.