Harvard may have to re-evaluate how it responds to allegations of sexual harassment and assault to comply with new guidelines announced earlier this month by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights distributed guidelines that clarify Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at institutions that receive federal funding.
The guidelines—which elaborate on the law already set out in Title IX—discuss the nature of sexual harassment and explain “schools’ responsibility to take immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence.”
The guidelines instruct schools to investigate all complaints under a “more likely than not” standard of evidence as opposed to the more rigorous “clear and convincing” standard that some schools currently use.
Associate Dean of the College and Secretary of the Administrative Board John “Jay” L. Ellison said that Harvard has never required a high standard of evidence in order to investigate a complaint.
But he added that other schools are “all over the place with standard of evidence.”
Harvard Law School is currently the subject of an investigation that was initiated earlier this month for alleged discrepancies in policy for handling sexual assault cases.
Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Sarah A. Rankin said that she believes the guidelines were created to help schools more effectively handle cases of sexual harassment.
“My thinking is that their sense is that campuses were in need of guidance,” Rankin said. “It was really to clarify the points that they perceived schools were struggling with to understand and meet.”
Rankin said she believes that the University’s Office of General Counsel is currently examining all of the schools across meet the requirements.
While other schools adopt legal terminology for their policies on sexual harassment, Ellison said that Harvard prioritizes student safety.
“We need to make sure that everyone has an ability to talk to someone to get advice, to get counsel, to know what their options are without starting a process they can’t control.”
The guidelines clarify that every school must appoint a Title IX officer who is responsible for making sure that the University is in compliance.
Susan B. Marine, director of the Harvard College Women’s Center and Harvard’s Title IX officer, did not respond to requests for comment.
The release of new guidelines for Title IX coincides with a complaint filed this month by current students and graduates of Yale, who allege that Yale is in violation of Title IX.
In a letter to the Yale community, Yale University President Richard C. Levin said that the school will “cooperate fully with the Office of Civil Rights in their investigation.”
Levin also said that he had appointed an external “Advisory Committee on Campus Climate” to examine how sexual harassment might be more effectively handled and combatted by Yale University.
In 2003, the Office for Civil Rights considered a complaint that was filed against Harvard University that alleged that revisions to the school’s dispute procedure discriminated against students who filed complaints of sexual assault.
—Stephanie B. Garlock contributed to the reporting of this article.
—Staff writer Zoe A. Y. Weinberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.