Going to Harvard is a privilege, but safety is a right
On Oct. 15, 28 Harvard Law School professors published a letter on the Boston Globe op-ed page that criticized Harvard University's new Title IX-compliant sexual assault and sexual harassment policy. In their letter, the 28 professors claim that the new university-wide policy has "undermined and effectively destroyed the individual schools' traditional authority to decide discipline for their own students," and has adopted procedures that "lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process" and "are in no way required by Title IX law or regulation." In response to their professors' public statement, several Harvard Law School students drafted the following response petition, which addresses points on which they disagree with those 28 faculty members.
As students of Harvard Law School, we write to voice our support for survivors of sexual assault, for promoting equal access to the benefits of education, and for administrators who treated federal civil rights law as a floor rather than a ceiling.
Members of the HLS community need to take seriously the epidemic of sexual assault on campuses around the country. For university sexual assault hearings, the criminal justice model may not be appropriate to address the unique problems both student complainants and accused face. That is where Title IX offices like Harvard University's Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution, and their policies, have a positive role to play.
Regarding your due process concerns, the new university process is administrative rather than criminal, but it still incorporates traditional safeguards of the American legal system. The policy is far from perfect and needs clarification, but it is clear that both sides in the process are encouraged to choose an advisor from among the university's faculty, are given access to all the facts, have the right to present evidence, and are given the chance to appeal. The new policy explicitly recommends that students seek legal counsel before making written or oral statements. Firmly believing in the importance of due process and the rights of the accused, we recognize the existence of those protections in the new policy.
You claim that the new policy "effectively destroyed the individual schools' traditional authority to decide discipline for their own students" by centralizing arbitration in the university-wide Title IX Office. We believe that a university-wide structure is a fairer way to ensure that all students, regardless of school affiliation, can access a neutral arbiter. Whether a student is studying design, law, or medicine should have no effect on the protections they receive. A Title IX Office has the expertise and commitment to equality to both uphold the law and implement university policy. Harvard's system was designed by a committee of faculty, students, and experts with frequent invitations to all interested parties to participate.
We appreciate your interest in assuring that the university's policy is fair, and we welcome your attempts to remedy its shortcomings. But we worry that your letter has distracted many in our community from an important goal—ending the scourge of sexual assault at our university. On that account, the new policy represents a step in the right direction. Instead of condemning the Title IX Office, we should now focus our energies on improving the university's policy—always with the twin goals of preventing sexual assault and sexual harassment, and of ensuring that justice and fairness are served.
Because going to Harvard is a privilege, but safety is a right; because when you speak, people listen; because we respect you, and consider your voices when finding our own: we ask you to reconsider the positions you stated in your op-ed.
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Anna Byers, Anna Joseph, and Maggie Dunbar are students at Harvard Law School. The petition has 117 student signatories and was endorsed by Harvard Law School's Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment advisers, HLS American Civil Liberties Union, HLS Lambda, HLS National Lawyers Guild, and HLS Students for Inclusion.