Sexual Harassment and Assault Reports Increase in 2018

The University reports on a continuing trend—and commits to improving the community’s culture.

Massachusetts Hall
Massachusetts HallPhotograph by Muns/Wikipedia

Disclosures of potential sexual and gender-based harassment increased by 55 percent from fiscal year 2017 to FY 2018, and formal complaints increased by 7 percent, according to the joint report of the University Title IX Office and Office for Dispute Resolution (ODR) released today. The data reflect a steady increase in the reporting of such cases during the last few years: the Title IX office received 416 disclosures of potential harassment this year, up from 266 the previous year, and ODR received 46 formal complaints this year, compared to 43 in FY 2017 and 26 in FY 2016.

The Title IX Office supports members of the Harvard community who file informal disclosures of sexual assault or harassment, and leads the University’s harassment education and prevention programming, while ODR conducts formal, disciplinary investigations for those who choose to pursue them. “We attribute this increase both to our outreach efforts, and to greater awareness nationally of these issues,” University Title IX officer Nicole Merhill wrote in the report. “It is important to note that while we have made progress in this area, we are keenly aware that there may be individuals in our community who, perhaps because of their field of study, program design, or employment aspirations, may not feel that their needs are adequately met by the resources currently available.”

The report’s analysis of formal complaints filed in the four years from FY 2015 to FY 2018 showed that 46 percent were either withdrawn or closed after an initial review. Of those that went to full investigation, 9 percent resulted in an informal resolution, 45 percent were found to involve violations of the University-wide Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment policy, and 46 percent were found not to. Of the latter, 15 percent nevertheless resulted in disciplinary action at the local school level. The average length of investigations was 3.5 months in FY 2018, down from 5 months in 2015.

Of the disclosures filed in FY 2018, 31 percent were filed by affiliates of the College, 35 percent by affiliates at other schools, 4 percent by central administration, and 30 percent by others or people with unknown affiliations. Of the formal complaints, 11 were filed by undergraduates, 12 by University staff, six by graduate- or professional-school students, five by faculty, and 12 by third parties.

“The events of the past year have underscored for me and for many other people that great institutions must work to protect and defend the people who make them great,” University president Lawrence Bacow wrote in an email to the Harvard community last week. “Our policies and procedures, our choices and our actions, should be imbued with deep humanity and great care for one another.” This past March, after sexual harassment allegations against Jorge Domínguez, Madero professor for the study of Mexico, came to light, then-president Drew Faust asked the Title IX Policy Review Advisory Committee to review the “cultural and structural realities that permit sexual harassment to occur.” That committee released its recommendations in October, and Bacow sent a response last week.

“Creating a community in which all of us can do our best work is my highest priority as president,” he continued. “Everyone who calls this University home should be made to feel welcome and free from harassment, and each of us has an important role to play in ensuring that outcome.” 

The report comes during a time of renewed scrutiny for university sexual harassment and assault policy at the federal level. Earlier this year, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unveiled a complex overhaul of the Obama administration’s guidelines on sexual harassment and assault. The new federal guidelines strengthen protections for accused students, by narrowing the definition of sexual harassment—requiring that the behavior be “severe and pervasive” to constitute harassment—and raising the standard of evidence that schools can use in assessing cases. The Obama administration’s earlier guidance directed schools to use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard (meaning that it is more likely than not that an accused student is guilty), while the new guidance allows schools to choose between preponderance and a “clear and convincing” evidence standard. Harvard is “carefully reviewing” the guidelines, Bacow wrote, “and will be working to ensure that our concerns are properly conveyed by higher education associations that are planning to submit public comments.”  

Read more articles by: Marina N. Bolotnikova
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