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DANTE RAMOS

Colleges are not equipped to investigate campus sex assaults

(shutterstock/heather hopp-bruce/globe staff)

Campus activists and the US Department of Education want universities to punish more sexual-assault suspects. But where’s the evidence that beleaguered college administrators are any good at investigating such crimes?

As the Globe reported last week, a former student expelled from Amherst College is suing the prestigious liberal arts school for its handling of his case. Under the pseudonym “John Doe,” the plaintiff argues that he was accused of sexual assault nearly two years after an encounter that his future accuser initiated while he was blackout drunk. A secretive investigation without clear procedures for obtaining evidence left him little latitude to prepare his defense, the suit asserts. After his expulsion, Doe obtained text messages that appear to contradict his accuser’s account.

At the least, John Doe’s suit raises questions about whether colleges’ internal investigations operate under fair, consistent rules. These questions are all the more urgent as federal regulators press universities to use a less stringent standard — “a preponderance of the evidence” rather than “clear and convincing evidence” — for deeming alleged attackers guilty.

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Unfortunately, the murky quality of internal proceedings is a common theme across campuses. In a bizarre case, Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis became the subject of a complaint under Title IX — the federal law covering sex discrimination and sexual misconduct in schools — because of an essay she wrote in February for The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, she bemoaned “sexual paranoia” at Northwestern and criticized a widely publicized sexual-assault case against a male fellow professor. Students had complained that Kipnis’s essay might amount to retaliation against the male professor’s accuser, and thereby contribute to a hostile environment.

What happened next was eye-opening: According to a second essay Kipnis published late last week, she couldn’t get straight answers about the charges against her. She wasn’t allowed to bring an attorney, couldn’t record her interactions with her investigators, and couldn’t get much in writing. Kipnis describes her ordeal as an “inquisition”; other critics characterize Title IX investigations as star chambers, kangaroo courts, and even “Stalinist persecution.”

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But colleges don’t always side with the accuser, and it’s wrong to assume they share the loudest student activists’ revolutionary fervor. More often, administrators behave more like bureaucrats under siege — minimizing the paper trail, wishing that the problem would go away, and satisfying no one in the end.

Defenders of internal sexual-assault investigations maintain there’s no justice without them; police and prosecutors generally don’t pursue criminal charges in campus rape cases, and genuine victims end up having to live alongside their attackers. Yet even as it implicitly pushes all schools to find more students guilty, the Department of Education’s official guidance leaves most other details of a Title IX investigation up to individual schools’ discretion.

Universities prefer to think of themselves as tight-knit intellectual communities capable of resolving even delicate issues in a quiet, dignified way. Yet whether of their own accord or at the instigation of the federal government, they’ve already traveled well down the path toward a more legalistic approach to sexual violence cases. And it’s absurd to expect individual campuses to develop their own formal rules for a problem all of them face.

Campuses need clear, standardized protections for the rights of the accuser and the accused, and explicit rules for fact-finding. For now, schools are dabbling in a type of proceeding that they’re just not equipped to conduct — and making up the rules as they go along.

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Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.

Related:

Opinion: Rethink Harvard’s sexual harassment policy

Harvey Silverglate: Campus sex assaults, the new panic

Opinion: Going to Harvard is a privilege, but safety is a right

Patrick Witt: A sexual harassment policy that nearly ruined my life

2014 | Cathy Young: Bias clouds campus assault solutions