If you’re wondering how wrong university procedures can go…

[Trigger Warning]

This story from Brown University will give you some idea. I encourage anyone who is confused about why victims may not come forward especially to read it. But of course, this isn’t just about Brown.

Students were outraged in 2013, when Yale University disclosed in a semi-annual report that only one of six people found responsible for sexual assault had been suspended, and the rest were punished with reprimands, training or probation. A subsequent report showed one student was found guilty of sexual assault and was given a two- term suspension, and the rest of the assault cases hadn’t concluded or did not lead to a formal investigation.

From the 2008-09 academic year to 2012-13 at Harvard College, five students were required by the Administrative Board to withdraw from the undergraduate school due to “social behavior – sexual.” Two students were punished with probation for “social behavior – harassment/sexual” and the college took no action against six students for “social behavior – sexual.” Harvard College was hit with a federal complaint last month for, among other grievances, forcing sexual assault victims to live in the same residence halls as their attackers.

Documents provided by Dartmouth College show that from 2010 to 2013, sexual violence cases resulted in two students being “separated or resigned” from the college, two students suspended, two placed on probation and four found “not responsible.”Dartmouth may implement a policy that would make expulsion the preferred sanction for students guilty of sexual misconduct.

Colleges are not required to disclose how many students are investigated or punished for sexual misconduct. Columbia University, for instance, has so far declined to release such statistics.

Three women accused the same male student at Columbia of sexual assault. Still, two of the reported victims told HuffPost that the male student was found not responsible and was allowed to stay on campus.

39 thoughts on “If you’re wondering how wrong university procedures can go…

  1. Utah’s Weber State U. reports every suspected rape to police, even if the victim doesn’t a report. They also publish stats as required by Utah law. If the dean’s office substantiates the claim, then the offender is expelled and cannot earn a degree from WSU. This happens regardless of whether a prosecution ensues.

    Prosecution is a double-edged sword, however. The high retribution in criminal justice that groups like RAINN demand requires a high standard of evidence for conviction and this is rarely available in campus sex assault cases. States are choking on prisons anyway–while I don’t think rapists should go away scot-free, I don’t thing the 10-20-life kind of sentencing approaches can work. They won’t make campuses safer because most offenders are first-timers and recidivism after campus-type sexual offenses are punished is actually fairly low, contrary to what RAINN asserted in its open letter to Obama.

  2. What’s said in the Brown story quoted here about the Columbia cases is odd. The student was found not responsible for the charges against him and was allowed to stay on campus. Should he have been kicked off of campus despite being found not responsible? Or is the fact that he was accused twice supposed to show that the finding that he was not responsible was mistaken?
    I trust there’s more to the story than the Brown article is covering.

  3. I think Crimlaw might be getting at the fact that the guy was found innocent, and so has a right to move on with his life.

    If the guy was *found* innocent, but really was in fact guilty of *something* then I can understand why the victim was upset.

    But this reminds me of something else that I really want to say on *this* blog where people at least have the right *intentions*:

    As a victim of a few instances of sexual misconduct, I can say that it’s very hard to get any sort of help for yourself without destroying other people’s lives. Maybe I’m wrong to think this way, but I’d rather *not* destroy anyone’s life ever. That doesn’t mean I don’t want and need help for myself.

    I hope you don’t mind that I’ve strayed off-topic and used this as a platform for something that *I* wanted to say, but I think this is an important thing to consider as we try and figure out how to handle cases of sexual misconduct in and outside of philosophy.

  4. Crimlaw–grad was right to point out there’s much more in the link.

    ThatKid–I think if there’s anything we should take away from the Brown story (and the stories linked within it), it’s that we should, absent other information, be suspicious that anything follows at all from someone being found innocent or having already been subjected to whatever sanctions a university imposes. Universities are systematically failing in egregious and horrific ways to deal with sexual misconduct appropriately.

  5. Yes. I agree. What *should* univesities do then? I’m telling you that I didn’t want do anything and was the victim of sexual misconduct at a university. I’m also telling you that I didn’t want to press charges or go through admin. I’m telling you that I had good reasons for making that choice. I’m also telling you that as a result, there was no help for me. But I think that’s bad. That’s my two cents, and I think it’s worth something in this discussion.

  6. ThatKid, these victims did want to file complaints, and they did want the universities to act (as to how they wanted their universities to act, they begin to describe it in the articles linked above). If some victims do not want to come forward, I don’t understand why that should affect how the university handles cases where victims do.

  7. *Sorry, that paragraph needed some editing: I was the victim of sexual misconduct at a university. I didn’t report it- for good reasons. As a result, there was no help for me. That’s a problem. How should we fix it?

  8. Ah, your follow up makes your earlier comment much clearer. Some universities have confidential resources that don’t legally require reporting (e.g., programs through a counseling center); one program at a university I’ve heard good things about is a student-only women’s group especially focused on support for victims of misconduct.

    Thoughts from other readers?

  9. Well, I didn’t want to come forward because I didn’t want to ruin the lives of the perp’s family. But I still needed help. I was faced with a choice: go through admin and (contribute to- sure, *I* didn’t start it) ruining their lives and get some help, OR protect them and get NO help. I chose the second option. Even though it wasn’t my fault, and I *knew* that, I had good reasons to go with option # 2. But my life was significantly and negatively affected by my choice- I think *my* life would have been worse had I gone with #1 too, for the record.

    I guess I would have liked the university to help me in some way. I don’t know what that way should have been. Do you? Does anyone have a solution? I’m raising a point and asking a genuine question.

  10. I don’t have any good advice, TK, except to reiterate that it’s a very good point that what should be done _to the offender_ is an importantly distinct question from what should be done _for victims_. I think it’s very worth while to bring it up.

  11. Yes. Everyone seems to be so obsessed with offenders that at least in my case, victims just fall through the cracks. I’ve spent a lot of time just being quietly POd about it, but I think it’s time I bring it up (anonymously anyway).

    I *still* stand by my reasons for *not* reporting it: the guy was dying and is now dead, okay?

  12. Well, I think one reason conversations tend to focus around a failure to deal appropriately with offenders is because, for many victims, that’s a constitutive aspect of how to appropriately respond to their experience (obviously, that’s not the case for all).

  13. It’s not the case for me, and perhaps a good many others. I was harmed by the misconduct because it made me wonder if I got into grad school *just* because someone wanted to sleep with me. It’s a long story as to why I thought *that* exactly, but I know my reaction to experiences like that is not unique at all.

    And I hate to sound like various interweb-crazies (sorry, I don’t know what else to call them- I don’t mean to offend people suffering from mental illness), but there’s this tendency to harshly convict people in the court of public opinion when cases like this come out. I didn’t want any part in that- but I wanted *some* help. I guess I do have a vague notion of how to solve this problem: keep things quiet and focus on victims *more* than perps…?

  14. ThatKid, your standing by your reasons is sufficient to command respect, yes! You give me much to think about with your statement that — if I understand you correctly– it’s a problem for victims to be unable to draw on resources of help available in a university, without first having to navigate arcane systems of complaint. What victims need may include forms of help that have little or nothing to do about the other person who becomes the centre of the complaint process.

    When I was a victim of domestic violence, I opted not to go to the police, but actually, the state provided me with most of the forms of aid I most needed, including shelter, food stamps, public/free sites where support groups met to talk. I wonder if schools and communities could do more to make it clear what resources are available to victims of sexual misconduct whether or not we complain. Maybe that should be featured MORE prominently than are complaint mechanisms; the latter are usually the first and sometimes the only thing offered.

  15. Yes Beta, that sounds like a fantastic start. I guess I wonder what departments can do to help grad students and majors who are victims. Presumably departments stand in *some* sort of special relationship to their students and/or people they employ. Maybe I’m wrong to think that. I’ve certainly been reacted to as if I was wrong, and I’m just not sure what the right thing to do is. I know I would have gone out of my way to help someone in my position, but perhaps that’s unreasonable to expect. I wonder if this is because there are just very few women with very much power in so many departments.

  16. ThatKid: there may be some ways I can help, but better not to discuss in public. Feel free to send me an email if you’d like to talk more– don’t put details in the email though.

  17. ThatKid, I’m very sorry to hear about your experience. I don’t know if it is too late for this information to be helpful to you, but perhaps it will be helpful to others.

    In the US, faculty members are mandatory reporters for sexual harassment and assault. If someone tells me that they have been sexually harassed or assaulted, I am legally obligated to report this to relevant offices within the university regardless of whether the victim wishes to file a formal report. For this reason, it may be very difficult for departments to offer formal support to victims who do not wish to report.

    However, there are people on campus, typically those in a counseling capacity, who are not mandatory reporters. At my university, those include people at the Women’s Outreach Center. That is where I would refer a victim (of any gender — our WOC also handles LGBTQ support and programming) who needed support.

    If you want to get help without filing a report, you need to find out who is exempt from mandatory reporting on your campus. One way to do this is to ask directly: Are you a mandatory reporter for sexual misconduct? Can you help me locate someone who isn’t?

    Many students aren’t aware of this distinction, and for that reason it is probably incumbent on those of us who are mandatory reporters to disclose this early on in a conversation where it appears that sexual misconduct is going to be reported. I would say something like this: “I am very willing to hear whatever you are about to tell me and give you support. But first, I need to tell you that I am required to report sexual harassment or assault that is disclosed to me. If something has happened and you’re not sure that you want to report it formally, I can help you find someone on campus who will offer support and is not required to file a report. If you are fine with a report being filed, then I will support you throughout the process.”

    I dislike the clinical nature of this. I wish there were a way for me to hear what someone has to say about their experience, offer support, and give them a chance to sort through whether or not to file a report. But at the same time, I see value in mandatory reporting, because it removes coercive influences against reporting that come when people are more concerned to protect the offenders than the victims.

  18. Thank you Jenny and Sherri- you were both very helpful.

    I’m aware of mandatory reporting. But I’m not sure what I think of that policy. On one hand, it’s good because it incapacitates perpetrators and deters others. Both of these things prevent future harm to more victims. If the victim is retributivist about punishment (like every one everywhere seems to be- always), then they [pronoun intentional] might get some satisfaction out of reporting the crime.

    But if you’re a utilitarian about punishment like me, then reporting is going to help others but it’s not going to help *you* unless there is more focus on rehabilitating the perpetrator than punishing them (pronoun intentional again).

    I guess I just think that there is something wrong with people who take advantage of those over whom they have significant power. In the story I mentioned above, all I could think was, “wow, you’re at the end of your life and this is how far you’ve gotten with yourself and the world? Sucks to be you!”.

    So I guess one question is this: does mandatory reporting help victims? If not, why not and what else might?

    But I’ve also been thinking a lot about the evidence, or the lack there of, in these sorts of cases. I mean, very often the only evidence available to any outside parties is one person’s word against another’s. That is *terrible* evidence! It doesn’t mean that real harm has not been done, and that real victims don’t need help. But it does mean that meeting any burden of proof for convicting someone is nearly impossible unless the burden is so low that it’s just as easy to convict an innocent person as a guilty one.

    So another question is this: if evidence in cases like this is pretty much nonexistent, but harms are real, how can victims get justice?

    I’ve been thinking about these things quite a bit. I think *I’m* pretty much close to fine at this point, but there are a lot of people who are not fine. I guess I’m more interested in figuring out a way to help other prople. But with that said, I probably *will* email Jenny at some point.

  19. Hi ThatKid,
    I share your ambivalence about mandatory reporting. I want to make sure it’s clear that in the last sentence of my comment @20 I was talking about faculty members who are sometimes more motivated to protect their offending colleagues (since they know them well, consider them friends, think they are “deep down” good people, want to avoid awkward situations and trouble for the department, etc.) rather than seeking justice for victims. I think they sometimes pressure victims not to go through a reporting process for that reason, and this is wrong.

    But I also agree that there are entirely legitimate reasons for a person who has experienced sexual misconduct not to want to report. These include the fact that many universities are still doing a catastrophically poor job handling these cases. Given that I am a mandatory reporter, I’m glad I have the ability to refer people to others at the university who aren’t.

  20. Sherri Irvin,

    A clarification question from a soon to be new US faculty member: does mandated reporting apply to all faculty members in public and private institutions and does it apply in all cases or only when the victim is underage? Does it matter if the offender is affiliated with the university or not? Does it matter if the victim is a student or a staff member?

    This is helpful information because I would hate to end up in a situation where I am required to report something a student would prefer not to disclose. If you have resources to suggest for faculty that would be wonderful.

  21. One more problem for required reporting: when a professor is required to report an incident or refer the student to counseling, it sort of *feels* like being dismissed or pushed-aside. That in itself is unpleasant. But I guess I would have liked faculty to have worked with me a bit more on how to remain productive in the aftermath of an experience like that. Counselors can’t really help you focus on, say, your objections to contextualism or modal realism, for example.

    I guess I’d like to know what people think about the duties that faculty have to students in general, and then given that, how they can best fulfill those duties to victims of sexual misconduct.

  22. I think it’s a bit of an oversimplification to say that “in the US faculty members are mandatory reporters for sexual harassment and assault”. My understanding is that the interaction of Title IX and the Clery Act is very complicated: the statutes place reporting duties on colleges as a whole, and on certain classes of people in supervisory positions, including some but not all faculty. And, of course, one may have contractual responsibilities that exceed one’s legal duties. If one is confronted with a particularly difficult case, I can only recommend obtaining independent legal advice.

  23. Thanks for bringing that up Interested Grad. I have no idea what any of ^that^ is- I guess I’m just a stereotypical philosopher with my head up my own rear-end. Where can I read those policies? I’d like to find out just exactly how they might have contributed to bringing about my unpleasant experience so that maybe others don’t have to go through the same sort of thing in the future.

  24. I’m afraid I really am very far from an expert on this. But you might start by perusing William A. Kaplin and Barbara A. Lee, *The Law of Higher Education*, 5th edn. (2 vols., Wiley, 2013) and DOJ’s Title IX manual:


    I emphasize that I am not a lawyer and, in any case that concerns you directly where the stakes are high, I *strongly* recommend getting advice from an independent attorney with expertise in the law of higher education.

  25. Also bear in mind that if the university has an explicit mandatory reporting policy that its employees are contractually obligated to follow, then the fact that there is no legal duty to report is unlikely to be of much practical relevance: It’s hard to imagine “Don’t worry, you can’t be sued in federal court if you keep quiet about my situation; you can only be fired” being the kind of argument that will persuade someone who’s on the fence not to contact the administration. Particularly since the chances of being sued are very minuscule in any case.

  26. I’m not at all interested filing any of my own lawsuits. But I’ll ask my lawyer cousin for help if the legal jargon gets too dense. Thanks IG!

  27. But I should add, since Know Your IX is a huge multi-page, that the answer to anonjunior seems to be: Ask who’s a mandatory reporter at your institution.

  28. Final caveat: remember that textbooks and third-party summaries, even ones prepared by the government (such as the DOJ manual and the “Dear Colleague” letter), are not law. They can be very reliable guides to what the law is, but in the final analysis, courts interpret the law, and you will have to examine court decisions on specific issues if you wish to be able to say with any confidence where the law is settled and where it is unsettled.

  29. While it’s good to ask anyone in whom you’d confide if they are a mandatory reporter so one can go in knowing what will follow, there are *very* good reasons for mandatory reporting rules. Without them (or where they are not followed), one can be left to the mercy of the judgments of untrained and sometimes unsympathetic faculty, faculty who may have a vested interest in not rocking the boat, in protecting those they like, in not inviting negative administrative attention, in discounting “stories” they don’t want to hear, who are prey to various biases, and on and on. Where faculty are free to exercise their judgment about reporting, one can quite easily be thrown under the bus. That’s why the rules are in place. I say that as one wearing tread marks from the bus.

  30. Thank All.

    Professor Manners, you’re right that people (normal, nice, well-meaning people) like to explain away testimony that they don’t want to deal with. I think that might be among the most insidious barriers to finding help for victims. So I understand *that* motivation. But I’m not sure if people are wrong to want to avoid negative administrative attention- it seems like admin is *most* concerned with the university’s reputation, and doesn’t seem appropriately concerned with the welfare of anyone directly involved in cases like this.

    I guess I still want to know what moral duty (as opposed to oblugation under the current law) faculty-members have to students in cases like this.

  31. *Thanks All, *legal obligation [dur…]

    [Perhaps I should write these in Word first, and then copy/paste into here. I hope you all can parse my unedited responses- my apologies if I’m unclear.]

  32. ThatKid, I think it’s not at all wrong for victims to want to avoid administrative attention. For faculty, I’m far more cynical about that desire. Thus I think the person making the call to avoid such attention should be the one with the complaint, not others. Notifying complainants that one is a mandatory reporter allows them that call, as does referring them to those without mandatory reporting obligations.

    As far as the moral issue goes, my concern is that faculty members who imagine their moral obligation to depart from their mandatory reporting duties (or who claim some superior moral insight to what their duties dictate) may be prey to a host of problems and levels of self-deception. Even ostensibly well-meaning faculty can deceive themselves about how able they are to assess what’s going on, how able they are to assist victims on their own, and about just how *influenced* they are by the desire to ignore problems and make them go away. Perhaps the easiest way to put this is to say that there are also good reasons why those people within a university who *do not* have mandatory reporting obligations tend to be just those with special training (e.g., ombudspersons, counsellors, and women’s center staff). Having no training and yet imagining you can handle a complaint internally, confidentially, and effectively is a form of dangerous hubris, I think. We have a moral duty to students not to overestimate our own abilities or fool ourselves about how complicated our motivations may be.

  33. “Notifying complainants that one is a mandatory reporter allows them that call, as does referring them to those without mandatory reporting obligations.”

    Sometimes it’s not that simple. The victim might feel much more comfortable talking to a long-time colleague than to a stranger; mandatory reporting then places the colleague in a very tough spot.
    A colleague of mine did tell me about an incident that she didn’t want me to report. If she had asked me whether I was a mandatory reporter, I wouldn’t have known the answer. And anyway, she needed to tell me, and she doesn’t want me to report anything. So, I won’t.
    Maybe that makes me one of those self-deluded “faculty members who imagine their moral obligation to depart from their mandatory reporting duties (or who claim some superior moral insight to what their duties dictate)”, but then again maybe Prof. Manners is the one imagining that our moral obligations are the same as our legal reporting duties, which I found pretty doubtful.

  34. I’m not saying it’s simple. Or that moral = legal. What I was imagining, for what it’s worth, are faculty who receive actionable complaints and do nothing or try to “handle” things themselves in ways that escalate problems and multiply injury.

    None of this is easy. I am just wary of too readily discounting mandatory reporting or depicting it as a burden that interferes with our sense. Perhaps I put it too strongly, but the worry is that once we conclude that we get to decide when and when not to report, it’s open to wagon-circling, hubris, rationalization, bias, etc. Some people might be quite good at making such judgments, but (cynically) I think a lot more will think they’re good than really are.

  35. Thanks All,

    P. Manners, you make an excellent point about self-deception and good intentions. When things like this happen, people tend to panic. And that makes it very hard to think clearly about anything. With that in mind, it’s really nice to have some protocol to fall back on. But I’m not sure if all the panic is warranted.

    You see, I think people tend to panic in cases like *this* because they feel some pressure to choose between the accuser and the accused. And if they pick one, they’re forced to throw the other under the bus. Nobody likes being in a position like that.

    But that’s not the right way to think about it.  Presumably people can be significantly harmed without any one person being at fault. Think about natural disasters. They hurt people, but no person is responsible for that. We also accept that sometimes people unintentionally hurt each other by accident.  Nobody thinks that the absence of fault in these cases eliminates a duty to help those that are harmed.

    If we think that’s true, then we shouldn’t think that humiliating the pitiful fools who engage in sexual misconduct is a necessary condition for helping the victim. 

    I don’t know. I would love to talk to you all about this stuff in greater detail the future- I *still* haven’t read the law (but I plan to at some point). :/

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