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Harvard’s New Sexual Assault Policy: A Source of Controversy

Harvard University has implemented a new sexual assault policy that has been the cause of much dispute, especially among law professors within the university. The policy changes include redesigned definitions of sexual harassment as well as innovative procedures for disciplining students and will be officially enacted this academic year.

Faculty members of the Harvard Law School have openly expressed their dissatisfaction towards the new practice, which they argue is an infringement upon the rights of the individual colleges within the University, but also argue that it violates the very core of their teachings at the Harvard Law School.

Harvard Law School faculty argue that imposing this policy on all individual colleges within the university violates one of its staple traditions of “faculty governance” and “academic freedom.” Moreover, by following the newly implemented sexual assault policy, the accused lack the appropriate due process, as the procedure deviates from the Title IX law, a regulation which protects students from discrimination based on gender in education programs or activities which receive financial assistance.

The faculty further contends that the accused would be deprived of an adequate opportunity to understand the facts charged, which is due to the fact that there is no clearly delineated definition for consent within the new policy. The law faculty is vehement in their plea for the university to eradicate the new method in favor of a policy that provides more equitable grounds for both parties involved.

In contrast, the sexual assault policy at Boston College provides a clearer definition of what consent should be in an intimate relationship as “words or actions that clearly indicate voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” BC’s policy also clearly defines sexual assault as “any sexual penetration or sexual contact with another individual without consent.” Furthermore, BC’s policy—contrary to Harvard’s—seeks to implement impartial justice among both parties involved in any intimate activities in question.

kari e. hong

Professor Kari E. Hong / Photo courtesy of Boston College Law School

Assistant professor Kari E. Hong from the BC Law School, who is an expert in immigration, criminal, and family law, shared her views on both universities’ policies.

“I am sympathetic to the claim that there is an adequate due process to an accused or to a defendant, so that should be an important part, but I think that ultimately the colleges can be in the business of inquiring upon reasonable or expected behavior to the students,” she said in reaction to the complaints directed towards Harvard’s new sexual assault policy.

Hong concluded that “while BC’s policy is more traditional in that it is hewed more closely to Title IX law, Harvard is experimenting and goes beyond the established Title IX in the interest of protecting victim’s rights and I think especially with what’s been going on nationally with the concerns that universities are not being responsive to victims, but the professors at Harvard are articulating that the pendulum has swung too far.”