Claire Gordon: Title IX Complaint Against Yale Has a Case
On March 31, 2011, the Office of Civil Rights announced an investigation of Yale University for possible violation of Title IX. 16 Yale students submitted the complaint two weeks before, arguing that Yale is a sexually hostile environment, which prevents women from participating in campus life as fully as men. If the university is found to violate Title IX, and fails to come into compliance, its federal funding will be revoked. Last year, Yale's federal funding was $510.4 million.
Under Title IX, no educational institution that receives federal money can discriminate on the basis of sex. This discrimination can take many forms, from unequal pay and athletic funding to sexual harassment.
I was able to read a draft of the current complaint against Yale, because I was asked to sign it, and declined. Three years ago, as a director of Yale's Women's Center, I was involved in a very public (and not very popular) response to one sexist incident on campus. I didn't want to go through it again. But I thought I could do use this opportunity to explain what the complaint says, and why I think the students have a case.
The Last Seven Years
Most of the Title IX Complaint documents a series of high-profile events that have taken place at Yale over the last seven years. In reverse chronological order:
Last October, 45 members and pledges of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, of which George W. Bush was once president, marched through Old Campus, where most Yale freshmen live. The 15 pledges chanted "No means yes, and yes means anal!" and "My name is Jack, I'm a necrophiliac, I fuck dead women and fill them with my semen!" The 30 older men shouted "Louder!"
No disciplinary action was taken.
In September 2009, an email ranking 53 freshmen women according to "how many beers it would take to have sex with them" circulated among fraternities and athletic teams, before going viral. The "Preseason Scouting Report" classified the women, who had arrived on campus only a few days before, under the headings "sobriety," "five beers," "ten beers" and "blackout," along with an overall grade of "HIT" or "miss," and some extra colorful commentary.
One of the students responsible, it seems, was quietly reprimanded by Yale's Executive Committee (the university's formal disciplinary body, better known as Excomm). But we can't be sure, because Excomm is strictly confidential.
In January 2008, over a dozen pledges for the Zeta Psi fraternity gathered in front of the Yale Women's Center shortly after midnight and shouted "Dick, dick, dick!" One Women's Center student employee was approaching the center at the time, but intimidated by the scene, she retreated and entered through a back door. The men then took a photo of themselves holding the sign "We Love Yale Sluts," uploaded the picture to Facebook and tagged themselves.
The Women's Center employee filed a complaint to Yale's Sexual Harassment Grievance Board, which was in fact created after another Title IX Complaint against Yale three decades ago. The case was then brought to the Excomm on the lesser charges of intimidation and harassment. The men were found not guilty, and the student wasn't allowed to appeal.
In May 2007, a group of over 150 medical students signed and submitted a letter requesting a review of the school's sexual harassment and assault policies. The Working Group that resulted found that students were unaware of the resources available to them, and also believed that if they were assaulted, their case might be dismissed, held against them, or their confidentiality breached.
According to the Title IX Complaint, no changes were made to Yale's sexual harassment and assault procedures.
In 2006, fraternity brothers surrounded the Yale Women's Center and shouted that favorite, familiar refrain: "No means yes, and yes means anal!"
No disciplinary action was taken.
Every year, the Yale Women's Center participates in Take Back the Night (TBTN), a nationwide rally against sexual violence. In the evening's solemn and stirring climax, students stand in a circle and share their experiences of sexual assault, often for the first time. As part of the event, rape survivors also decorate t-shirts and display them publicly on campus. The man who raped me is still at Yale; I hurt, but I am not silenced. They are a reminder to the Yale community that sexual violence happens, and happens here, and that its victims have a voice. In 2004, women were heckled by passerbys as they told their stories to the crowd. The next day, four t-shirts disappeared. In 2005, almost half of the 48 shirts were stolen.
No disciplinary action was taken.
Is It Sexual Harassment?
According to the Office of Civil Rights, a "hostile environment" exists when "there is a pattern or practice of harassment, or if the harassment is sustained and non-trivial," particularly "if the conduct has gone on for some time, or takes place throughout the school, or if the taunts are made by a number of students." The Title IX Complaint against Yale argues, in 27-pages passionate pages, that Yale is a hostile environment for women in exactly these terms.
Under Yale's regulations, conduct qualifies as sexual harassment that "has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work or academic performance or creating an intimidating or hostile academic or work environment."
Determining sexual harassment is murky business. But when a freshman woman, returning to her dorm, must pass by a group of fraternity pledges mocking, in unison, the very idea of female consent -- it seems, to me, like her academic environment is hostile. "Feeling preyed upon by the members of my community," one wrote one student in a petition, "makes me wonder if there is really anyone who takes my feelings seriously and thinks of me as a human being and not a piece of meat."
When a freshman woman, in her first week at college, has her photo, name, hometown address, residence hall, and an analysis of her sexual attractiveness distributed to hundreds of her new classmates -- it seems, to me, like her academic environment is hostile. "I have felt less secure around campus," wrote one "scouted" freshman in the YDN.
When a student is too scared to enter the Women's Center, a declared safe space for women on campus, because a mob of drunk men are chanting "No means yes, yes means anal!" outside its front door -- I'd say her academic environment is hostile. "I felt in danger," she wrote in the YDN, "as if approaching them would undoubtedly result in verbal, if not physical, harassment."
When a rape survivor, who lets her story hang in the open air of Yale campus, finds her hand-designed t-shirt stolen the next day -- her academic environment sounds hostile to me. "A culture of denying rape," wrote one of the TBTN organizers in the YDN, "is a culture of rape acceptance."
On the next page, Yale's Response.
If any of these incidents had happened in an office -- men shouting "no means yes, yes means anal!" at a woman's desk, or debating over their work email how liquored up they'd need to be to sleep with various female colleagues -- those men would be fired. But at Yale, only one harasser in any of these cases has received so much as a reprimand.
According to Title IX guidelines, when there is an incident of possible sexual harassment a school should "take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end any harassment, eliminate a hostile environment if one has been created, and prevent harassment from occurring again."
The students' Title IX Complaint details how Yale has failed again and again and again to respond to cases of sexual harassment effectively. Sexual harassment has, as a result, happened again and again and again.
After the T-shirts were stolen in 2004 and 2005, the university said and did nothing. They were equally stony in the wake of the DKE chants in 2006. After the "We Love Yale Sluts" incident of 2008, however, members of the Yale Women's Center board (myself included) drafted a report to the administration, which asked for several things, including disciplinary action against Zeta Psi, and the establishment of an official Yale relationship with fraternities.
Neither of these things we're done. But Yale did give us education and resources.
The sexual harassment/assault education that takes place during Freshman Orientation was revised a year later, replacing a spunky sketch show with a more sobering 40-minute student-made film, Relationships: Untitled. The new program was full of good intentions, but there was no information about recourse for victims at all. Not one rape kit. Only one girl even used the word rape.
The Women's Center did get a ceiling, however, and access to a bathroom.
"By law," the Women's Center wrote in its report, "the University must institute the changes necessary to ensure that this kind of behavior does not recur." This kind of behavior recurred.
When the Preaseason Scouting Report came to light the next year, a forum was held about "Sex at Yale," and the investigation of the culprits came, at least publicly, to a "dead end," although one senior seems to have been reprimanded in hushed tones. Unless the administration responds seriously, wrote one student in the YDN, a "similar act is going to happen again."
After the DKE chant last October, a group of alumni launched an online petition urging President Levin to publicly denounce the fraternity's actions. Change.org launched another petition, asking the university to discipline the fraternity. They received 2,049 and 4,564 signatures, respectively. But DKE's actions were not denounced as sexual harassment and the fraternity wasn't disciplined. Instead, Yale held a forum on "Yale's Sexual Climate." DKE's national organization prohibited Yale's chapter from further pledge activities, but lifted the ban less than a month later. Yale can't control that, because the university has no official relationship with fraternities.
In the wake of the DKE incident, Mary Miller created a Task Force on Sexual Misconduct Education and Prevention, which sent a report to the Yale community on March 2nd this year. Its main recommendations: more sexual misconduct education, more educators, more education resources, and a committee to review the education.
This task force comes in a long line of committees and councils at Yale responsible for investigating, examining, reviewing, and recommending on the subject of sexual misconduct. It's a headache just trying to trace them all. The Women's Center created its report in February 2008, built upon by the Report on Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Education in May 2008, developed by the Women Faculty Forum Council Report in October 2009, and revised by the Sexual Misconduct Committee Report in July 2010. The Sexual Misconduct Committee ultimately suggested the creation of a University-wide committee (UWC) by January 2011 to handle sexual misconduct complaints.
If this bureaucratic tangle isn't mind-numbing enough, I recommend reading the report from the Sexual Misconduct Committee in full. Actually, I don't. The description of the procedures of the UWC is incredibly long and confusing. The UWC also doesn't yet exist.
I'm a fan of resources, education, and dialogue. I'm really glad the Women's Center got access to a bathroom. But forums are quickly forgotten. More resources for peer hotlines and counseling services, although critical, are only useful after women have been harassed and assaulted; they don't prevent harassment and assault from happening. And they don't answer the question: why does it happen so much?
Sexual harassment is the product of a deeper culture of misogyny that is visible in other, more subtle, ways at Yale. When large groups of Yale men act this out publicly, Yale can act dismayed, and nominally condemn it, but without actually punishing the harassers, without calling it sexual harassment, without addressing the culture that has made so many men "lapse in judgment" so many times over so many years, the school has allowed this culture to persist.
The Underreporting of Sexual Misconduct
With this message from the administration, it's not surprising that so few women report their harassment or assault. If they do, it's usually quietly resolved, and almost never ends up at Excomm. If it does, it is incredibly rare for the assailant to receive more than a reprimand -- a verbal wrist slap -- and more often than not charges are "withdrawn." In other words, they get off.
According to Excomm's annual reports, between 2007 and 2010, there were 17 cases of harassment and/or intimidation; 13 were withdrawn and 4 received reprimands. There were four cases of sexual assault; 1 was withdrawn and 3 received reprimands; and 1 case of sexual assault and rape, which was withdrawn. In this same time, 24 students were suspended, and 36 were put on probation, for cheating.
Many women don't want to take their case to Excomm, because it's daunting; women fear retaliation, or that they won't be believed. The process can be confusing, drawn-out, and the very word "Excomm" strikes fear into the average Yalie heart. But no doubt many women simply don't think it's worth it, if their assailant will be reprimanded, at most.
It should be the work of advisory bodies, like the Yale Sexual Harassment Grievance board, to support women through this process. But the Title IX Complaint describes how the Grievance Board has, in fact, done the opposite, and actively discouraged women from pursuing a formal complaint.
That kind of irresponsible guidance isn't part of Yale's policy, but I'm not surprised it happens. I served on Yale's Sexual Harassment Grievance Board for a year, and didn't receive any training until my name and number had been published as a Grievance Board contact for over six months.
We don't know how much sexual harassment and assault actually happens on any college campus. There are no accurate statistics, and speculations are always contentious. According to the Department of Justice, as many as 1 in 4 women will experience rape, or attempted rape, in their college careers. The Clery Act is one attempt to collect more accurate numbers; colleges are required to poll a wide range of authorities to collect crime data, including women centers, counseling services, and deans, and then publish the statistics in an annual report.
In 2004, a complaint was made against Yale for grossly underreporting sexual offenses under the Clery Act. It's unclear whether the U.S. Department of Education has finished its investigation, but there are still some unsettling quirks in Yale's numbers. For example, zero sexual offenses have been reported off-campus, although that's where Yale's biggest parties, and all fraternity parties, take place. This may explain why the campus sexual assault hotline recorded 24 assaults in the 2007-8 school year, but the official report listed only eight sexual offenses in 2007.
Most Yale students aren't aware of these numbers. Most Yale students don't know what the Clery Act is, because Yale doesn't tell them. Most Yale students don't know their rights under Title IX, because Yale also doesn't tell them, even though it has to under Title IX.
Title IX also requires that all schools designate an employee to coordinate any Title IX complaints, and that all students and employees are given the name and contact details of this person. Click on the link for Yale's Title IX Coordinator, however, and the website tells you: TBA.
In order for a hostile environment to reach the level of a Title IX violation it must be "sufficiently serious to deny or limit a student's ability to participate in or benefit from [a school's] program."
The complaint catalogs a number of individual testimonials of women who have directly suffered as a consequence of Yale's sexual environment. For confidentiality reasons, I can't repeat any of the specifics of these cases, but they include persistent harassment, depression, anxiety, fear, and thoughts of transferring. But how could you give up a big name like Yale?
Yale didn't respond to offensive chanting in 2006, which emboldened members of the same fraternity to chant the exact same words four years later, and through the heart of campus. Nothing was done when 4 t-shirts were stolen from Take Back the Night in 2004, and 20 were stolen in 2005. Fraternity brothers proudly declared their love of "Yale Sluts" in 2008, and picked out individual "Yale sluts" to "love" in an email, photos included, in 2009.
In its own published statement, Yale advises victims of sexual harassment: "Don't Delay. Don't be led into believing that if you just wait a little while this will all blow over and go away. It probably won't. The longer you delay, the more difficult it may be to resolve the problem... Silence may be misinterpreted as consent."
"Report the complaint," it says.
And women have reported it. They brought men to Excomm, for the charges to be dropped. They've written reports, and then graduated before the committee created by a committee finally published any recommendations, which are waiting to be reviewed by a committee.
It is Yale that has waited believing that it "will all blow over and go away." Yale has delayed, making it all the "more difficult to resolve the problem." It is Yale's silence that can be misinterpreted as consent.
No doubt the complaint will cause a storm on campus. No doubt many women will speak out: Yale is not a hostile environment for them. It isn't, that is, until their image, with vicious, vulgar comments, ends up in hundreds of campus inboxes -- and the Yale administration does nothing; until they're scared to enter their dorm one day, because drunk fraternity pledges are chanting sexist slurs outside the door; until they are, god forbid, assaulted, and advised not to report it; until they take it to Excomm anyway, and the perpetrator gets a "reprimand" or nothing; until they publish their story on a T-shirt, and find it stolen the next day.
The question of whether Yale is a "hostile environment" for women is not asking whether every individual woman at Yale experiences hostility, but rather whether there are acts of hostility with disturbing regularity on campus, which the administration tacitly tells students to accept, and the targets of these acts are always women. On Yale's campus, it seems, this happens in a high-profile way on average once every school year, and in private and more devastating ways, much more.