Light & Verity

Title IX investigation into climate for women at Yale

Every year since at least 2005, an incident of shockingly blatant misogyny at Yale has made news on campus—and sometimes in the national media. Last fall, fraternity pledges stood on Old Campus and chanted “No means yes, yes means anal.” The year before, athletic teams and fraternities circulated an anonymous e-mail with photos of incoming freshman women, ranked by how drunk the writer would need to be to sleep with them. In 2008, a group of fraternity pledges photographed themselves standing outside the Women’s Center holding a sign that read, “We love Yale sluts.” The list goes on.

In early April, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into a complaint filed by 12 women and 4 men, all Yale students or recent alumni. The complaint alleged that, by inadequately preventing or responding to these incidents, as well as to individual experiences of sexual assault, Yale had created a hostile environment that violated Title IX’s mandate that no student at a federally funded school be denied equal access to education on the basis of sex.

“I don’t think it’s an attitude where all women at Yale constantly feel in fear,” says Presca Ahn ’10, a complainant. “The norm, overall, is that most students are respectful of each other. But when Yale demonstrates an attitude of tolerance in reaction to public misogyny, then it’s saying it’s OK to be sexist at Yale.”

In an e-mail to parents, Yale College dean Mary Miller ’81PhD stressed that Yale “does not and will not tolerate sexual misconduct” and that it will cooperate fully with the investigation, taking it as “an opportunity for self-examination.” Miller highlighted Yale’s creation of a new University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, which will streamline the way the school handles allegations of harassment and assault.

The university has also appointed an Advisory Committee on Campus Climate—composed of four alumni and chaired by Margaret Marshall ’76JD, former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court—to look into the climate on campus and offer advice on how the university might improve it. Office for Civil Rights staff will take reforms like these into account in their investigation, which is expected to last about six months.

The fact that Yalies are turning to Title IX to combat slurs and sexual assault is especially significant, given that it was at Yale that the statute was first linked to this kind of behavior. In 1977, five female students sued Yale for allegedly turning a blind eye to teacher-student harassment. While the plaintiffs lost their suit, the judge’s acknowledgment that sexual harassment in education could potentially violate Title IX constituted a small legal victory that had sweeping real-world consequences. Schools across the country, including Yale, soon scrambled to implement sexual harassment policies.

Now the question is whether these policies are enough. In December, the Office for Civil Rights concluded similar investigations at Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan. Both schools, like Yale, had been accused of inadequately responding to instances of campus sexual assault, but the Office for Civil Rights did not charge either with Title IX violations. Instead, it reached “voluntary resolution agreements” with the schools that required them to draft new grievance procedures, educate students about their Title IX rights, and establish committees to prevent the recurrence of assault.

What the Yale complainants say they want is discipline and transparency. Ahn notes that, despite the known identities of the men in the “Yale sluts” photograph and the pledges whose chants were captured on YouTube last fall, no one has been suspended or expelled in connection with these transgressions—as far as she knows. (The fact that the university’s confidential disciplinary procedures preclude her from confirming this is another source of resentment.)
Yale, however, is in a tricky position. In a complaint of student-student harassment or assault, the university is equally obligated to represent the interests of both parties. And when these complaints involve students’ First Amendment rights to chant what they please, Yale’s role in maintaining a civil, Title IX–compliant campus becomes even more complicated.

When does one student’s right to a non-hostile educational environment outweigh another student’s right to free speech, or one student’s right as a victim outweigh another’s right as the accused? The Office for Civil Rights will surely help the university navigate these questions, but answers may prove elusive.  

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