As the Boston Globe and others are reporting, the university announced yesterday that it is creating a new, centralized office to handle sexual assault allegations, establishing conformity across its 13 schools in how such cases are handled. The office will have the ungainly name of Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution.
“Gender-Based Dispute Resolution”? Does that mean disputes about gender, or resolution using gender based methods?
I’m pretty sure I know the answer, but neither option really speaks to what the office is actually for, and this imprecision of language is not encouraging. Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution—try to use that in a sentence.
The announcement appears to have been timed to generate minimum coverage, with Harvard releasing the news on July 2nd.
As the Globe puts it,
Trained, expert investigators, hired based on their experience and expertise in investigating civil rights complaints, will run a new Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution at Harvard.
The office will handle sexual and gender-based misconduct complaints against students “ranging from persistent or pervasive harassment in a lab environment, for instance, to a rape,” [Mia] Karvonides [Harvard's Title IX lawyer] said.
(By the way, Karvonides gives the new office the rather unfortunate acronym ODR, as in, “I’m taking the matter to ODR.” Oh well.)
The university will also change its judging criteria in sexual harassment and assault cases to the lesser “preponderance of evidence” standard that the Justice Department favors.
My friends on the left are cheering this development, but my attitude is a little more cautious. First, make no mistake: This is the long arm of the government reaching into the handling of sexual assault on college campuses, due in large part to an onslaught of hype and publicity about a phenomenon whose widespread existence has never been definitely established. (The story at Harvard that got so much attention, for example, was written by an anonymous female student and marked by very murky details. But, you know, it’s Harvard, so it gets a lot of attention.)
Second, some who greet this development with optimism may find that it brings unanticipated consequences. Anoffice established to appease the Justice Department is going to make the process of investigating these matters a more formal and, probably, bureaucratic one. That may in some cases produce results that accusers/victims will feel better about than the current system does—but it’s not a panacea.
Second, the lower standard of evidence is a very tricky issue. It is certainly lower than a criminal court would require, and it should give civil liberties advocates pause.
Consider, for example, this quote in a Bloomberg article from Wendy Murphy, an adjunct professor at the New England School of Law (her practice specializes in representing victims of sexual assault, something Bloomberg should say but doesn’t):
The policy “means whenever a victim’s word is slightly more credible than an offender’s denial, Harvard must take some action,” Murphy said in an e-mail. “It means sweeping rape under the rug will be a lot harder now at Harvard — and that’s a good thing.”
Slightly more credible?
This is a very wishy-washy standard, and it doesn’t exactly have the ringing sound of an enduring legal principle like, say, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Granted that many of these cases are gray areas (though not everyone thinks so), but “slightly more credible” adds another level of murkiness and subjectivity to their adjudication.
I have been fascinated by the amount of attention this issue has attracted in recent months, and as you can tell, somewhat skeptical. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m as opposed to sexual assault as Wendy Murphy, and a single instance of it on a college campus is too much. I just haven’t seen any evidence that demonstrates that it is as big a problem as has been claimed of late; in a long article, Rolling Stone proclaimed an “epidemic” of “campus rape,” but good luck trying to find a statistic anywhere in the article. There’s a lot of public policy being made on anecdotal evidence.
And so now the government is getting involved, offices are being established, “experts” are being hired, lawyers are being quoted…
One can’t blame Harvard for taking this step; the university was, I have no doubt, extremely concerned about federal intervention. And there is probably no perfect solution to the problem of how to resolve allegations of sexual assault. But I’m not convinced that this is an improvement.