Harvard Law Professors’ Open Letter On Harvard’s New Sexual Assault Policies Is Troubling

We need to talk about campus sexual assault. Across the United States, young woman are rarely so vulnerable to rape and other forms of assault as they are while attending college — a reality which has led many campuses to adopt new policies on sexual assault to try to combat its prevalence. Now, a group of Harvard Law professors have condemned Harvard's new sexual assault policy, arguing it unfairly infringes on the rights of accused students. The professors call for the public to reassess the policy, in light of its incompatibility with "many of the most basic principles we teach."

So, how to feel about this? It's a concerning plea for a number of reasons, but it makes sense, given the background — law professors are always going to examine issues like sexual assault differently from, say, how a social sciences professor might. But the professors' open letter to the Boston Globe strikes a troubling tone when it attests that Harvard's new policies go beyond the requirements of existing laws.

Obviously existing laws have failed to properly mitigate what's a culture rife with abuse — a 2011 federal survey of over 16,000 Americans found that 1 in 5 women reported some form of sexual assault, and that's not even confined to campuses.

Writes the Harvard professors:

As teachers responsible for educating our students about due process of law, the substantive law governing discrimination and violence, appropriate administrative decision-making, and the rule of law generally, we find the new sexual harassment policy inconsistent with many of the most basic principles we teach. We also find the process by which this policy was decided and imposed on all parts of the university inconsistent with the finest traditions of Harvard University, of faculty governance, and of academic freedom.
Craig Barritt/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

As Bloomberg's Chris Staiti notes, one of the people behind the letter is the ever-controversial Harvard Law emeritus professor Alan Dershowitz, who drew criticism over his outspokenness during Israel's Operation Defensive Edge campaign in Gaza in recent months. But even as something of a lightning rod for criticism, Dershowitz is not alone, here — the letter is cosigned by 27 other Harvard Law professors, seven of them women.

The professors are essentially arguing that the changes made to Harvard's policy recently — establishing the Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution and allowing for a "preponderance of the evidence" to be taken into account in sexual assault allegations — are violating the principles of due process that undergird the American criminal justice system.

Regardless of whether or not you agree, it's not a good look, considering that the whole thing was spurred by a federal investigation over Harvard's mishandling of sexual abuse cases.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images News/Getty Images

For dozens of professors to come forward now to decry the policy — especially considering the letter doesn't propose any clear alternative course beyond the need to "fully address sexual harassment while at the same time protecting students against unfair and inappropriate discipline" — strikes an uneasy tone of status-quo negligence, regardless of however well-intentioned or informed their objections may be. Either way, this case will be an important one to keep an eye on going forward.

Images: Getty Images (2)