For William M. Sutton ’23, the decision to join Our Harvard Can Do Better, a student organization which since 2012 has fought to dismantle rape culture at Harvard, was an easy one. He sees sexual violence as an issue so “pervasive and immediate” that standing by is simply not an option. “You can see it, or experience it, or know people who have experienced it,” he says. “You can point at it and say it happens here. And once you know that, how do you not try to stop it?”
Sutton has been involved in anti-sexual violence activism since high school and was eager to continue this work as a freshman at Harvard. He had heard of Our Harvard Can Do Better before, but it wasn’t until seeing them speak in favor of better responses to harassment and assault at the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers picket line last winter that he noticed their passion and emphasis on community organizing. He joined soon after.
Sutton had only a few short weeks of organizing in person with Our Harvard. In March, the organization’s members found themselves flung far and wide across the country as the University transitioned to remote learning.
Sutton spent the remainder of his freshman year at his family home in Hingham, Mass. It was from this house that he helped launch one of Our Harvard’s most comprehensive campaigns yet. When I speak to him over Zoom, he’s sitting at his desk, behind which I can see framed Green New Deal posters hung side-by-side on the wall. They look like merchandise from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s online store.
The isolation of the pandemic, Sutton admits, has made organizing difficult. But after then-Secretary of Education Betsy D. DeVos released new Title IX regulations in late spring, Our Harvard members spent their summers huddled over their computers collaborating on a response to this crucial moment.
These new regulations, released on May 6, include a narrowed definition of sexual misconduct, as well as a requirement for Title IX proceedings to include live hearings with cross-examinations of both parties. All universities receiving federal funding, Harvard included, were given just 70 business days to issue policies in compliance with the new rules.
Supporters of DeVos’s laws applaud them for giving more rights to the accused. Many anti-sexual violence organizations, however, fear they will dissuade survivors from reporting; given that instances of sexual assault are already notoriously underreported, this is a huge cause of concern for Sutton and other members of Our Harvard Can Do Better.
Our Harvard knew that DeVos’s brief turnaround would give Harvard until Aug. 14 to release revised policies in compliance with the new Title IX regulations. The organization spent several months after the DeVos ruling researching, discussing, and drafting a petition with 16 specific demands for Harvard’s revised policies. These demands included protective measures to make live cross-examinations less stressful for survivors, a 60-day timeframe for all Title IX investigations, and a clearer University-wide definition of consent.
The group released their petition on July 4, over a month before Harvard’s new policies would be completed, demanding that Harvard implement the “dangerous provisions” issued by the Department of Education in a manner that would minimize harm to survivors.
The petition garnered over 1,000 individual signatures, as well as the support of 74 student organizations. In addition to the written petition, members of Our Harvard Can Do Better met over Zoom with University Title IX coordinators to share their perspective on how Harvard should respond to the Department of Education’s new rules.
According to University Spokesperson Nate Herpich, the “valuable input” from Our Harvard Can Do Better and other members of the Harvard community “overwhelmingly supported the University’s decision to create two interim policies that go beyond the minimum requirements stipulated by the new Title IX regulations.” The provisional nature of these “interim” policies allowed the University to technically meet DeVos’s deadline, while also having the flexibility to finalize policies later on.
While the interim policies do go beyond the bare minimum of the DeVos administration’s requirements, they do not come close to fulfilling all of the demands made by Our Harvard Can Do Better. The student organization released a statement in August detailing their dissatisfaction with the University’s response to their suggestions. Specifically, they called for the University to adopt a model of affirmative consent and to strengthen systems of support exterior to Title IX.
Our Harvard Can Do Better’s demands do more than express concern about the Title IX changes made under DeVos — they also expose a major gap between what Our Harvard thinks students need and what the University provides in terms of support. The organization’s nine year fight to fill this gap provides a window into varied interpretations of justice. For some survivors, justice is found through formal processes, like Title IX proceedings. For others, Sutton says, justice is easier to find outside of Harvard’s institutions: “One, because they think, or know, that those institutions may fail them. And two, because they don’t necessarily want to punish the person who did them harm,” he says. “Title IX is not a carceral institution, but it can really ruin somebody’s life. And honestly, sometimes survivors don’t want the lives of that person ruined. They just don’t want it to happen again.”
Sutton says that Our Harvard Can Do Better does not favor one interpretation of justice over another. In his mind, by advocating for better Title IX policies, Our Harvard tries to create institutions which will not fail survivors; for survivors who find Title IX too punitive or formal, Our Harvard pushes for alternate resources that exist outside of those very institutions. In doing so, the organization attempts to adapt broader systems of justice to meet individual students’ needs.
Improving and diversifying Harvard’s responses to sexual assault, however, will require the cooperation of both student activists and the University, a feat which historically has been difficult — indeed, many of the changes Our Harvard advocates for today have been part of its platform from the organization’s beginning nine years ago.
As I spoke to Our Harvard members and University representatives about what Title IX actually looks like at Harvard, I found myself asking for clarification again and again. I’m not the only one puzzled by Title IX — in a recent report on sexual harassment at Harvard, an external review comittee found “widespread confusion about even the most fundamental aspects of the reporting system,” writing that, “Multiple individuals, for instance, did not know the difference between the Title IX Office and the ODR” — the Office for Dispute Resolution — “or the difference between a disclosure and a formal complaint.”
I counted myself among these individuals up until a conversation with Our Harvard Can Do Better member Remedy H. Ryan ’21. Ryan explained to me that the Title IX office is where survivors can go to report sexual misconduct and ask for supportive measures, like extensions on assignments and section switches, so that they are better supported as they continue their education. Supportive measures can be given without opening a formal investigation. If a survivor chooses to start a formal investigation, the case is passed along from the Title IX Office to the Office for Dispute Resolution. If the ODR finds a violation of policy, a final party decides on disciplinary measures. For undergraduate respondents, this final party is the Administrative Board.
When I tell Ryan it seems crazy how many people I’ve spoken to before fully understanding the intricacies of that chain of events, she laughs and tells me that “it’s really taken four years” for her to pin them down so well. “Which is kind of sad itself,” she adds. Ryan is a senior studying Social Studies and WGS. She’s been a member of Our Harvard Can Do Better since she was a freshman.
She believes that confusion about the logistical aspects of Title IX could deter reporting in and of itself, pointing out that more students might seek supportive measures if they knew they could do so without starting a formal investigation.
Another misconception of Title IX is the tendency to view it as a criminal process. In actuality, Title IX is meant to ensure that sexual misconduct and gender-based discrimation do not prevent any student from fully participating in their education. Ryan points out that, “at the end of a Title IX proceeding, no one’s going to jail. No one’s going to prison, right? It’s really about access to education, and that’s why it’s so important.”
It’s true Title IX’s purpose isn’t to charge respondents with crimes and incarcerate them. However, Title IX outcomes can have extreme effects on a perpetrator’s life. At Harvard, the most serious response to Title IX policy violations is dismissal or expulsion, which, although not carceral, is still a solution which can feel “really punitive in nature,” as Sutton puts it.
Title IX has occupied this gray area between educational access and discipline for a long time, but the changes made under DeVos evoke its parallels to the criminal justice system more than ever. Our Harvard Can Do Better worries this will turn even more survivors away, since many seek out Title IX as an alternative to going through the process of a criminal lawsuit. In particular, instituting a live questioning procedure which requires accusers to recall their experiences in great detail before a panel is worrisome to members of Our Harvard. They fear that such cross-examinations could be re-traumatizing to survivors. In the past, Harvard has investigated Title IX complaints by interviewing each of the involved parties and witnesses separately.
Ryan argues that changing this practice will only deter reporting, emphasizing that “trying to build up the Title IX process to make it very similar to a court proceeding isn’t the point.”
Sutton agrees, saying the new regulations “have more of a chilling effect on reporting, rather than an actual securing of the rights of the accused.” He argues that “it’s very difficult to go through a Title IX process in terms of your mental well-being, but also in terms of success.” As of 2019, only 47 percent of Harvard’s Title IX complaints that proceeded to ODR investigations resulted in the finding of a policy violation.
In Sutton’s view, this is a relatively low percentage of findings, and demonstrates that respondents were likely not denied due process in Title IX proceedings prior to the new DeVos rulings. In short, he doesn’t think the provisions are “responding to a real need.”
Our Harvard hoped the inclusion of its demands would make Title IX a more accessible, welcoming resource to survivors who feel it could bring them justice. Some of these demands were successfully included in Harvard’s interim policies. For example, Harvard has agreed to implement measures to make live hearings and cross examinations more comfortable for survivors. It has also created separate procedures to investigate University policy violations no longer covered by Title IX’s new, narrower definition of misconduct.
These measures address concerns about changes made under DeVos, but they don’t make Title IX as supportive to survivors as Our Harvard believes it could be. One of the largest disappointments to student organizers was Harvard’s decision not to adopt a definition of affirmative consent.
An affirmative consent policy would “flip the burden of proof onto respondents to show that they obtained consent,” Our Harvard writes in the petition. This policy would require students to receive positive verbal consent, rather than relying on the absence of a “No.” Instead, the University has maintained its “unwelcome conduct” policy, which, according to Our Harvard’s petition, “assumes that all sexual conduct is welcome — that all parties have consented — unless survivors prove otherwise.”
Sutton sees the unwelcome conduct policy as another way in which Title IX proceedings are made similar to criminal ones. In criminal trials, the assumption is that power works against the accused, hence the “innocent until proven guilty” doctrine which defines our criminal justice system.
However, when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, the power imbalance is often reversed against survivors. This reversal, Our Harvard suggests, means the burden of proof should be reversed as well. Title IX cases are also not like criminal trials in that they seek to prove that a plaintiff’s access to education was impeded, not that a respondent broke a law.
Sutton says opposers of affirmative consent view it as too “stringent,” meaning it asks too much of the accused to require proof that they obtained consent. He pushes back against this mindset, saying, “This is Title IX. It’s sort of its own thing. So when we’re talking about consent definitions, if it’s more stringent than maybe you’d like as a trial lawyer, it doesn’t really matter.”
While Our Harvard believes the benefits of an affirmative consent standard are obvious, the issue is deeply controversial — so controversial, in fact, that the University and student activists have clashed over it for nearly a decade.
During her time as an undergraduate, Kate J. Sim ’14 saw the need for a dialogue about sexual violence at Harvard as obvious, inescapable even. “It was kind of impossible to not talk about sexual violence with friends,” she says. “It was just a common thread that structured [the experiences of] a lot of my peers, in my experience.”
In 2012, Sim co-founded Our Harvard Can Do Better alongside classmate Pearl Bhatnagar ’14 in the hopes of creating public change out of these private conversations. She looks back on her time with the organization with incredible “pride and tenderness.” Sim is currently a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, studying sexual misconduct reporting technologies in U.S. higher education. Kept busy by her research, Sim says she doesn’t follow Our Harvard’s projects as closely these days, but that “it’s been a real pleasure to see it grow and change over the years.”
And while Sim finds Our Harvard Can Do Better’s longevity as an organization inspiring, she also remarks that its continued existence is a sign of the persistent need for on-campus anti-violence activism. The organization’s earliest projects bear a striking resemblance to those it focuses on today.
Our Harvard’s original short-term intent centered around two main goals. The first was to get a University-wide affirmative consent standard. The second was to make “Title IX procedures and resources more robustly available,” Sim says, adding that she had heard “countless horror stories” of students who were unable to receive necessary supportive measures after an instance of sexual misconduct.
In 2014, when Sim was a senior, Our Harvard Can Do Better filed a federal Title IX complaint criticizing Harvard’s responses to sexual assault. Jess R. Fournier ’17, who began organizing with Our Harvard as a freshman after meeting Sim at the Activities Fair, helped write the complaint. They describe the experience of filing the complaint in vivid, rambling detail, pausing only to recall a specific name or date, or to ask me if they’re talking too fast.
Fournier describes the complaint as a compilation of anonymous stories of sexual violence gathered from Harvard students over the course of six months. It also included an in-depth analysis of Harvard’s policies and their failings, as well as a list of demands, among which were “a change to [an] affirmative consent standard, robust and comprehensive sexual education, [and] a more inclusive set of remedies,” according to Sim.
Sim says Our Harvard’s complaint won over the support of many students and faculty members. Soon after Our Harvard filed their complaint, former University President Drew G. Faust created a task force to look at Harvard’s policies regarding sexual violence, and formed the more centralized Title IX office that students are familiar with today.
However, Harvard resisted complying with student calls for an affirmative consent standard, just as they have continued to do for years since. Sim believes this resistance is rooted in the University’s fear that, “If we change the consent standard, then we’re suddenly going to have more assaults.” That, she says, is “sort of the point.” She’s implying not that a policy change would somehow cause more literal instances of misconduct, but that a more inclusive definition of assault would increase the number of students who’d be willing and able to bring their cases to Title IX.
Fournier recalls multiple meetings with representatives of the Title IX office to discuss an affirmative consent policy during their time with Our Harvard. They say the general sentiment expressed by the University in these meetings was that affirmative consent was too broad of a concept for students to use and understand, despite 85 percent of the student body endorsing the policy change in a 2012 UC referendum.
Fournier suspects that the University’s resistance to adopting an affirmative consent standard — and their attitude toward sexual violence policy in general — is “all about limiting their own responsibility and liability.”
“They’ll sit down and they’ll nitpick you over the words in that policy, but at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about,” they say. The University declined to comment on this claim. Fournier has become “more and more skeptical about the efficacy of filing Title IX complaints against universities” over time because of what they view as Harvard’s self-protective conservatism. “A lot of the conversations being had,” they note, “are very similar to ones that we were having when I was a student.”
This repetition, Fournier speculates, may be intentional on the University’s part. They suggest that the cyclical nature of student activism, “that people graduate and move on and things get forgotten,” may allow Harvard to be more resistant to change. One of the strengths that has allowed Our Harvard Can Do Better to persist for nine years is its ability “to give people this history that the university purposefully conceals” — a history of what they see as inadequate responses to sexual violence.
Fournier is not alone in what they refer to as their “institutional skepticism.” Current members of Our Harvard also express disillusionment with the University’s responses to their initiatives.
Priya P. Kukreja ’21 is one such skeptical student. Kukreja is from Omaha, Neb. She says her high school was ultra-conservative, and as one of a few progressive students she gained a “very intimate understanding of what power looks like and what oppression looks like.” When she came to Harvard, she expected this understanding to be common knowledge. “I realized quickly that I don't go to a hyper-leftist, liberal University, as much as people like to call elite universities that,” she says. She was relieved to find a community of like-minded individuals in Our Harvard Can Do Better, which she joined her freshman year.
Kukreja is currently living in Leverett House, and the first time I speak to her over Zoom, she flips her laptop around so I can see the view from her window — the rooftops of Cambridge are tiny and snow-capped down below. She’s cheerful and impassioned when she talks about the advocacy work she’s done with Our Harvard, but when we discuss levying for change at the University level, the frustration in her voice is audible.
She says that conversations she’s had with University representatives, like discussions of interim Title IX measures over the summer, “have not felt productive, or mutually respectful.” Kukreja fears that while individual University members are sympathetic to Our Harvard’s cause, in the end “a money-driven, profit-driven, image-driven institution like Harvard” will not put student interests first. “Especially students that could be a liability,” she adds, “which are survivors of sexual violence.” Harvard declined to comment on this assertion.
Because of Harvard’s response, or lack thereof, to student demands, Kukreja tells me most survivors have no real resources “other than reporting or staying silent, both of which are not ideal at all.”
With nowhere else to turn, these students may seek justice via other avenues. Such was the case over the summer. Around the same time Our Harvard was advocating for change at the level of institutional Title IX policy, another, less formal movement against sexual violence at Harvard was coming to its boiling point. In June, several Twitter accounts began to post anonymous stories of harassment and assault at Harvard. Within the span of a few days, the number of followers and posts rose rapidly.
The sheer magnitude of submissions made clear just how widespread an issue sexual misconduct is at Harvard. Most of the stories shared included the full name and class year of the alleged perpetrator. I found myself assigning names and faces to stories which ranged from uncomfortable to outwardly violent. These were no longer strangers. These were classmates, acquaintances, people I used to smile and wave at in the dining hall. For many students, the names and faces were those of friends.
Within the few days that the accounts were active, they captivated the attention of Harvard’s student body. The experience of watching the allegations pour forward was nerve-wracking and electrifying at once. I had the sense the entire school was watching, reloading their Twitter feeds again and again.
Anna, a Harvard undergrad who spoke under a pseudonym to protect her privacy, says that when she came across the Twitter accounts her primary feeling was one of relief. “I immediately recognized it as an avenue by which I could express something that had been weighing on me for a long time,” she says. Still, the decision to share her story publicly was not an easy one, even if her name would not be attached. “I was refreshing the page all day,” she says. In the end, her friends encouraged her to share her experience.
The story Anna chose to share occurred during her freshman year at Harvard. A male student she had met once before at a party texted her one Friday night, asking her to come to his room under false pretenses; he claimed he was coming out as bisexual and needed emotional support. When Anna, slightly drunk after attending a party, arrived at the student’s room, he told her the text had been a lie. He was not coming out; he just needed to get a girl to his room as part of a hazing ritual for his sports team.
Anna says she was embarrassed and confused. When the student asked her to stay, claiming his team was watching, she agreed. He gave Anna more alcohol, then tried to kiss her. She said “No” twice, but he ignored her and continued.
“It didn’t seem like anything I could pursue through any formal avenue, nor that I wanted to pursue through any formal avenue,” Anna says. At times, she’d doubt the seriousness of her experience, despite the fact that she associated “such strong humiliation and coercion with it.” When she found the Twitter accounts, they “seemed like the perfect place, because it was for identifying moments like this, that might not fall into any traditional buckets, but that are kind of harmful nonetheless.”
Kukreja says she and the other members of Our Harvard were sympathetic to the intent of these anonymous accounts. “It was a tough conversation for Our Harvard Can Do Better to have about whether we should advise people to take down these stories, or to encourage them to keep them up,” she says. “Because at some point, it is a form of accountability to name names.”
This was a sentiment shared by Anna, who says she knew of other girls who’d had bad experiences with her perpetrator. Naming him felt, to her, like a “public good” that might prevent his misconduct from recurring.
Kukreja says Our Harvard ultimately decided the Twitter accounts were doing “more harm than good” when the group realized the accounts were putting survivors at risk of more harassment or targeting. It was possible for perpetrators to publicly expose the identities of their anonymous accusers, or for them to muddy the waters of the unvetted accounts by submitting false allegations.
Our Harvard released a statement outlining the risks the Twitter accounts posed to survivors, suggesting alternative “opportunities for community accountability and sexual respect.” In response, both Twitter accounts deleted all allegations and ceased to post, pointing survivors in the direction of Our Harvard and other resources.
Anna says in the end, the surge of social media activism “didn’t even make as much of a difference as people thought.” After her story was posted, her perpetrator reached out to her directly. She says at first he was respectful and apologetic, but the conversation quickly devolved into him making excuses, victimizing himself, and refusing to acknowledge how his actions were wrong. “It did more harm than good for me personally,” she says, “and probably for him, like it just made him feel more righteous and wronged by women.”
In particular, Anna was outraged when her perpetrator claimed he had a “policy” of asking for consent up to three times before abandoning a sexual pursuit. While she doesn’t blame her experience on the failure of any particular office at Harvard, she does see this as “a failure of Harvard education.” “Badgering someone until they acquiesce,” she reasons, is “obviously not what consent is,” because it disregards and disrespects how the individual feels about the encounter. She says she thinks Harvard should have “more continuing discussions” about what consensual sex looks like, rather than a few “ineffective” plays freshman year.
Despite her own negative experience, Anna hopes that the Twitter accounts at least caused people to reflect on their potentially harmful actions and commit to change. “I like to think that every guy who’s done something bad was shaking in his boots,” she says, “and had a moment thinking, ‘Okay, I’m never going to do this again.’”
Ryan says the summer’s onslaught of Twitter allegations “sparked a conversation that needed to be had, for sure.” In her view, the changes Our Harvard suggested in their petition could mitigate many of the issues illuminated by the accounts.
She believes that an affirmative consent standard, as opposed to the unwelcome conduct standard, “would give students a little bit more of a clear guideline” as to what consent looks like and what circumstances negate consent, so that harmful situations like those highlighted by the Twitter accounts could be avoided.
Anna, on the other hand, says her experience makes her unsure whether Harvard students would properly use affirmative consent. She worries that defining consent solely on the presence of a “Yes” could still be “weaponized” against survivors, because saying “Yes” once doesn’t imply consent for the duration of a sexual encounter. She also believes there can be respectful encounters where affirmation is not verbal, and views consent as a holistic consideration of verbal, nonverbal, and situational cues.
Regardless, there is a general consensus among members of Our Harvard that the Twitter accounts were attempting to create a healing space for survivors who don’t feel their vision of justice aligns with the spirit of Title IX, or of any other formal resource, for that matter. While outing a perpetrator online may provide temporary relief, Anna says it’s difficult to create long-lasting, productive change without an outside party facilitating the conversation.
One of Our Harvard Can Do Better’s most recent projects may fulfill this lack of mediation. The group has begun to look toward restorative justice and abolitionist feminism as guiding principles for creating resources that fit the needs of survivors who, for whatever reason, don’t see Title IX as a viable option.
Restorative justice is an alternative form of healing external to the criminal justice system. It focuses on repairing harm through community accountability and mediated conversations between offenders and those they’ve affected. Although Title IX is also an alternative to the criminal justice system, the formality and potential disciplinary consequences of a Title IX proceeding can make it feel more similar to a trial.
The goal of restorative justice, meanwhile, is not to prove harm occurred, then dole out punishment. Instead, its aim is to allow both individuals involved in an instance of misconduct, and the community as a whole, to reach a place of mutual healing. Our Harvard thinks it could change the future of sexual assault response at Harvard.
How exactly to implement restorative justice practices is not yet clear. Kukreja says that ideally, Harvard’s restorative justice model would allow students to engage in “voluntary, safe conversation about sexual interactions that were not consensual, to reach a mutual place where both parties feel heard.”
Our Harvard hopes to pursue restorative justice through “community-based avenues that do not rely on the institution of Harvard,” Kukreja says. This, she admits, is easier said than done. For one, if conversations between survivors and perpetrators are mediated by individuals who aren’t “experienced in restorative justice, these conversations can go super poorly.”
Another obstacle is Harvard’s restrictions on how clubs and student organizations are allowed to respond to reports of sexual harassment or assault. These restrictions essentially dictate that “if someone reports to [Harvard personnel involved with] a club or an organization, they have to funnel it back to Title IX,” Kukreja says. “There’s no autonomy there.”
“How do you create a community that feels restorative in its approach when it has to abide by these strict guidelines put by the institution?” Kukreja asks. It’s a question Our Harvard is struggling with even now. Ryan says perhaps it would be useful for “Harvard to hire someone that can create an R.J. program that could be used for all kinds of harm.” While this option would be more centralized and institution-dependent than the community-based vision Kukreja speaks of, she admits there are other schools that have implemented successful restorative practices. Harvard’s neighbor Lesley University, for example, uses a restorative approach to address instances of “bias.”
Still, Ryan emphasizes that “Our Harvard supports survivors in whatever choices they decide to make,” whether that’s seeking justice from the police, from Title IX, or from community resources. Even regarding the anonymous Twitter accounts, Our Harvard Can Do Better does not judge any individual survivor’s decision to share their story publicly. The organization’s criticism of the accounts is not so different from its criticism of Title IX policies; in both instances, Our Harvard advocates for resources which are more supportive and safe for the students who use them, Ryan says.
The members of Our Harvard Can Do Better recognize that individual visions of justice may never align perfectly within a more general system of justice. Nonetheless, they push for changes which will make all survivors feel as supported and heard as possible, regardless of their varying needs. When I ask Ryan whether she thinks grassroots organizing or activism through existing institutions is more effective, she simply says, “It has to be both.”
“Harvard is a frustrating place,” she says. “We have to push them on every little thing. But I believe that the students at Harvard deserve better, right? [They] deserve systems that are actually going to serve them.”
— Staff writer Roey L. Leonardi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LeonardiRoey.