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What Harvard Law Professors can Learn From Stanford Undergrads

Last July, Harvard University adapted both a new policy on sexual harassment and a new set of investigatory procedures to respond to it. Not surprisingly, both policy and procedures are designed to ensure compliance (and general harmony) with Title IX of the U.S. Code. IX prohibits discrimination and ensures access to educational programs that receive federal funding.

Sexual violence and harassment implicates Title IX in that federally-funded schools must preserve educational environments that are as free as humanly possible from these things. That’s the bottom line. Harvard is pursuing that bottom line surely in the interest of doing what’s right as well as in preserving an important funding stream. Good on them.

Regardless, a few months ago, 28 Harvard Law School professors signed a statement published in the Boston Globe expressing “strong objections” to the new policy and procedures. Indeed, the principal author has stated her belief that current federal efforts in this area will be looked back on as a “moment of madness.”

My legal betters seem to have objections in two major areas: First, they bemoan what they see as a lack of due process protections for students accused of violating school policy based on Title IX protections. They see an adjudication system “overwhelmingly stacked” against accused students. Second, they believe Harvard has gone too far in defining offending conduct under their Title IX-based disciplinary policy, apparently believing it threatens things like “individual relationship autonomy.”

I’ve carefully reviewed the new procedures, and while I can’t go point by point in this space as to why they are basically reasonable, suffice to say I don’t see anything that should raise an alarm as if Harvard has decided to do away with anything resembling American legal tradition in favor of a politically-correct mob. Regardless, reasonable minds can differ on whether an adjudication system for student misconduct provides enough procedural safeguards. Fine.

It’s their second area of objection (the new definition of impermissible sexual harassment) that I find somewhere between mystifying and dangerously naïve. They apparently object- at least in some way- to Harvard’s new prohibitions against sexual conduct with a person “so impaired or incapacitated as to be incapable of requesting or inviting the conduct…provided the Respondent knew or should have known about…” such a condition.

That’s right. To a united legal mind of 28 in arguably America’s finest law school, this clear prohibition is somehow problematic because of “complex issues in these unfortunate situations involving extreme use and abuse of alcohol and drugs by our students.”

With due deference to this brilliant group, they seem to know precious little about 1) sexual violence as it plays out when intoxicants are a weapon of offenders, and 2) the reality of how victims perceive their own victimization in most cases.

It’s a fact that intoxicants, particularly but not exclusively alcohol, are often used by sexually predatory people to disable victims, ensure destruction of their credibility, create confusion and doubt due to memory loss, etc., and also because a sad majority of people (like the Harvard Law 28) are blind to this kind of behavior, believing it instead to be some kind of misunderstanding. Predators depend on this naivety when it comes to what they do. They always have.

But it’s a far more crucial fact that the vast majority of women (and men) who are clearly sexually violated- particularly when voluntarily intoxicated themselves- never report sexual assault in the first place, let alone cases of what is likely college-age confusion or awkwardness.

Why? Because in the great majority of cases, the truly victimized do exactly what thinkers like the HL28 want them to do: Blame “confusion.” Blame college inexperience. Respect “relationship autonomy.” But above all, blame yourself.

So might a new (and utterly reasonable) definition of sexual harassment lead to a floodgate of aggrieved people “crying rape?” Will “madness” from the government then subject legions of inoffensive young men to academic ruin?

No. Both notions are silly. Yet I’m amazed at how many otherwise brilliant people believe them.

The HL28 could learn something from a recent and brilliant op-ed by two undergrads at Stanford, describing very similar efforts that will be undertaken at that equally august institution. Contrasted to the hand-wringing of the HL28, it’s genius.

One comment

  1. Andrew MacKie-Mason says:

    Does the new policy incorporate the traditional “intoxication is not a defense” aspect into the “knew or should have known” mens rea, so that “should have known” would be evaluated from the perspective of a sober person? If so, it seems like the definition would encompass the “two equally intoxicated individuals” case, which reasonable people can certainly differ on with respect to defining it as punishable misconduct.

    Even if one thinks that scenario isn’t likely to be a significant portion of the instances reported, that doesn’t seem to be a good justification for not excluding it in the definition.

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