Campus & Community

Q&A with Harvard’s Title IX officer

long read

Mia Karvonides discusses new University-wide policy, procedures

With the release of the first University-wide Title IX policy and procedures, the Gazette recently sat down with Harvard’s Title IX officer, Mia Karvonides, to discuss the changes and what they mean for the University’s efforts to protect community members and prevent sexual harassment — including sexual violence — related to gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

GAZETTE: Can you summarize briefly the most important aspects of the new University-wide policy and procedures?

KARVONIDES: The first thing to recognize is that, while Harvard is made up of multiple Schools, we are one community at the end of the day. Our responsibility is to protect all students, all faculty, all staff, affiliates, and visitors from discrimination, and from the task at hand, sexual harassment. With that in mind, the new policy looks at the whole array of sexual harassment — from one severe incident like a rape to persistent or pervasive harassment. And we’re looking at it as a community, how it impacts all members of one community.

The most important change is that we are creating a new office, the Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution, or ODR, to investigate sexual misconduct complaints against students, ranging from persistent or pervasive harassment in a lab environment, for instance, to a rape. As a central office, the ODR will serve the entire Harvard community and will be staffed by expert investigators. It will also work in close coordination with the involved Schools. The new office will create a new level of continuity and consistency.

Investigators will interview witnesses, review the evidence, make findings of fact using the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, determine whether there has been a violation of the policy, and turn their reports over to the individual School disciplinary panels.

GAZETTE: What role will the Schools play?

KARVONIDES: I think the role of the Schools is critical. They will be engaged at every step along the way. For instance, they’ll have the opportunity to have their designee involved as part of the investigative team. A School’s Title IX coordinator will be involved with putting in place supports and other interim measures to assist the affected person and possibly the broader community, pending the outcome of the investigation. And they will also be updated as we go through every stage of an investigation. Also, the Schools will continue to make any disciplinary decisions with the benefit of the report from the professional investigators.

GAZETTE: When do the new policy and procedures take effect?

KARVONIDES: At the start of this upcoming school year.

GAZETTE: Now that you’ve created this new, University-wide policy and procedures, what work is left for the Schools to do? For instance, what is the FAS committee chaired by Professor Alison Johnson working on?

KARVONIDES: The next step, which includes the committee at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) chaired by Alison Johnson, is to apply the new University policy and procedures to each of the individual Harvard Schools. Each School has a different process for doing that. Professor Johnson, for example, leads a committee of faculty, students, and staff. Ultimately, the FAS policies and procedures — including the student and other handbooks — must be adapted to work with the University-wide policy. That is true of every School.

GAZETTE: What policy applies between the beginning of the new term and the completion of the work at the Schools?

KARVONIDES: At the beginning of the new term, the new policy applies for all faculty, students, and staff, and the new procedures will apply for complaints against any student across the University. Schools are working hard to update their policies and procedures into line as quickly as possible. We believe it is important for our community that we move forward in time for the new academic year.

GAZETTE: Why didn’t the University adopt an affirmative-consent standard?

KARVONIDES: Our overarching commitment is to protect all members of our community from discrimination based on sex. The standard we’ve adopted is that of unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which is consistent with the standard in all federal civil rights laws that apply in an education setting, including Title IX. It also makes sense given the range of conduct reached by the policy, which goes beyond sexual assaults and prohibits other forms of gender-based harassment.

In our policy, we talk about how you determine if it is unwelcomed conduct. There’s more in the policy to elaborate, but essentially conduct is unwelcome if a person did not request or invite it and regarded the conduct as undesirable or offensive. We believe we should have a standard designed to protect our community from all types of gender-based discrimination, even if the behavior isn’t criminal.

GAZETTE: But many advocates say that Harvard is one of the only universities among its peers that doesn’t have affirmative consent.

KARVONIDES: That is likely impossible to say because there is no standard definition of affirmative consent. The closest any college comes to a defined affirmative-consent approach is Antioch College. Under their policy, consent is given step by step at every point of engagement during an intimate encounter. You must verbally ask and verbally get an answer for every point of engagement. “May I kiss you? May I undo your blouse?” Etc.

GAZETTE: Do any of Harvard’s peers share Antioch College’s definition of affirmative consent?

KARVONIDES: Probably not in the pure sense of what Antioch has adopted. Each of our peers uses different standards. Again, that’s part of the problem. There is no one definition of affirmative consent that folks reference when they make statements about who does or doesn’t have affirmative consent.

GAZETTE: Has the legal landscape governing sexual misconduct at colleges changed in recent years?

KARVONIDES: Definitely. In 1997, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights — which everyone calls by its acronym, OCR — first issued sexual harassment guidance, explaining what the obligations are for an institution to comply with Title IX in terms of preventing and responding to incidents of harassment in their communities. That guidance document went through the formal rulemaking process. That 1997 guidance was later revised via another rulemaking process and reissued in 2001. To date, the 2001 guidance is the only guidance from the Office for Civil Rights — the only agency charged with interpreting Title IX — that has gone through that rulemaking process and is still in effect.

The reason that matters is because regulations issued only after broad and formal input has been solicited are given more legal deference and are generally assumed to more fully take into account the full range of complexities. Obviously, we give the statutes the highest level of deference, but the next is something that has gone through the rule-making process. So that’s important to keep in mind.

In 2011, the Office for Civil Rights issued further guidance in a “Dear Colleague” letter that zeroed in on higher education and peer sexual assaults. The “Dear Colleague” letter specifically references the 2001 guidance, saying “We’re not going beyond. We’re not issuing new law. We’re just providing more clarification on that 2001 guidance.”

Finally, in March 2013, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act [VAWA] and, for the first time, included a new section that focused on campus sexual violence. This new legislation created stipulations for how colleges must conduct discipline when gender violence is at issue. What’s tricky is that these new stipulations are a direct overlay to the prescriptive Title IX requirements when we are handling these very same types of cases. It also included new mandates related to training and the types of information we provide students, faculty, and staff. That law is going through the later stages of the rulemaking process now, with new regulations anticipated in the next year.

GAZETTE: How has this changing legal landscape affected the way you’ve approached the development of the new policy and procedures? It seems like a bit of a moving target.

KARVONIDES: Reconciling the different actions by Congress as well as the OCR has been challenging enough. In addition to these legal and regulatory changes, however, President Obama created an advisory task force earlier this year to study campus sexual assault and issue a report with recommendations.

The task force completed its work and in April issued its “Not Alone” report. While we take their recommendations very seriously, they don’t carry the weight of either law or regulation, and don’t come from the regulating agency, OCR. So, as we formulated the new policy, we looked first at the law, including the changes created by the reauthorization of VAWA. We then looked at the 2001 OCR guidance, the only Title IX guidance that has gone through rulemaking. And finally, we looked at other guidance, including the “Dear Colleague” letter and the more-recent recommendations coming out of Washington.

GAZETTE: What do you think about the growing national attention on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses?

KARVONIDES: I think it’s great. When I went to college in the 1980s there was a lot of apathy among students, at least on my campus. There was not a lot of activism. I came from a family where there was a lot of activism, and when I went to college I was expecting to be engaged with my peers. But while I did get involved, I felt somewhat like an outsider on my campus. I am very encouraged and excited that students are organized and engaged and that they want to understand these issues and they want to understand what Title IX is all about.

Frankly what I’m very impressed by is their incredible use of social media for their activism. I feel like I and others could probably benefit a lot from studying how they’ve been networking, and students from across the country are helping each other with looking at their own campuses, filing OCR complaints, reporting those who have experienced sexual assault. I think that’s great. Any day, I would rather have students who are active, frankly, and advocating for change, than silent.

But I do hope that students, in their activism, find ways to engage with members of the community who may have differing opinions.

Since I have been here, I have had an open-door policy. I have had students who have come to me directly, sometimes to talk about an instance that may have occurred a few years ago, sometimes to talk about something that has happened more recently, and other times because this is an issue that’s a concern to them, and they want to share their views. Those conversations have meant a lot to me as I have been doing my work.

GAZETTE: What will success look like?

KARVONIDES: If we are successful, we will be raising awareness of what it means to be a member of the Harvard community and how people should treat one another.  Together with a prompt and effective response to allegations, the new policy and procedures should contribute to the broader University efforts to reduce the incidence of sexual misconduct.  This does not mean that the number of reported cases will necessarily decline.  As the community’s confidence in our efforts increases, we very much hope that people who might not have come forward in the past will feel more comfortable doing so now.  We’re already seeing encouraging signs of that.

GAZETTE: What would you say to a member of the community who believes the new policy and procedures don’t hit the mark exactly right?

KARVONIDES: I will welcome every conversation with students, either groups of students or students individually. I want to hear their thoughts, their concerns, where they feel the policy is too limited or too expansive, and I’d like to explore it with them.

There will be opportunities to speak with me and to speak with their Title IX coordinators in their respective Schools. At the end of the day, when someone is concerned about a policy, they are often concerned about how it is applied. There’s some work that we can do, and I hope we can do well, in developing tools to demonstrate how the language from the policy is applied to real-life situations. If your respective School has a committee or a group of leaders working on this issue, such as the committee at the FAS, you should certainly talk with them directly.

GAZETTE: You sent the policies to the Office for Civil Rights in April. Have you heard back?

KARVONIDES: Unfortunately, we have not yet received feedback on the substance of the policy and the procedures. But we want to have the policy and procedures in place when students return. We want to have everyone ready to implement the new policy, to communicate it to students, to have the procedures up and running, and to have ODR — the new investigation office — operational. We’re at a point where we risk not being prepared when the students return if we do not act now.

GAZETTE: Going forward, whom should students, faculty, and staff call if they have an incident or problem to report?

KARVONIDES: There are four primary places someone can go: the new Office for Dispute Resolution, the Title IX coordinator at your School, the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, and the Harvard University Police Department. Of those, only the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response provides an entirely confidential process. The other resources are private, but they may be obligated to take action to address an ongoing threat, for instance, or to get you help. Let’s take them one by one.

For Harvard students, regardless of what School you’re at, the new centralized office — the Office for Dispute Resolution, or ODR — is a resource for you. You can come to ODR for information to ask questions and better understand the protections under the policy and/or what options may be available if you have a concern. [You can go there] for an informal resolution process because you’ve had an incident (other than a sexual assault, for which an informal resolution is not permitted by OCR), or because you’re experiencing persistent, pervasive harassment, and you prefer to explore an informal resolution. Last, ODR is the only place where you will be filing complaints if you’re a student.

Students, as well as faculty and staff, can also go to the Title IX coordinators at their School. Title IX coordinators receive ongoing training, are neutral parties, and are committed to protecting all members of our community from sexual discrimination. You may have a concern about something that has happened to you, regardless if you are student, faculty, or staff. Or you may have observed something or heard of an incident that has occurred for someone else in the community. We really encourage you to go to your Title IX coordinator and have a conversation. Oftentimes, a Title IX coordinator is first approached by a concerned friend or other member of the community. Either way, a Title IX coordinator can help you with interim measures — the support you need to continue your studies and continue to participate in all aspects of what Harvard has to offer you as a student. And, also, your Title IX coordinator can help you understand what a complaint process might look like and help you with accessing ODR for filing a complaint.

The Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, OSAPR for short, is the primary confidential resource for students here at Harvard. It’s very important that students have a place where they can talk to someone, knowing that whatever is said is not going to leave that room, and oftentimes, that opens up into a conversation at a much deeper level. Other confidential resources include Bureau of Study Council clinicians, clergy, and medical or mental health professionals. But OSAPR is staffed by trained rape counselors, and is there to believe what you tell them and to work with you to get you the support you need, no questions asked.

Finally, HUPD [Harvard University Police Department] is another critical resource. Some of the underlying conduct that we’re talking about is criminal as well as being discriminatory. Any member of the community can, and I would encourage them to, call HUPD to get help, and to, if they choose, file a criminal complaint.

At the recommendation of the task force created by President Faust this spring, we are already working to create a website that will centralize information about these resources in one place.

GAZETTE: Before you came to Harvard, you were at OCR’s Boston office. How did you get into this line of work?

KARVONIDES: I was at OCR for five years before coming to Harvard. I consider myself a civil rights and education law attorney. That’s the way I identify who I am, what I do.

When I was at OCR, I was investigating complaints of discrimination based on all of the federal civil rights laws, based on race, color, national origin, disability, and sex. I led two significant harassment investigations of educational institutions, trying to determine whether there was a hostile environment. We found violations, and I worked with them to resolve the problems. In one case, I actually got to witness the corrective actions they took — including new policies and procedures — and was really pleased to have been able to be part of making a real difference. So that to me is my beacon of light, because I’ve seen a turnaround occur when you have a hostile environment.

Practicing law is a bit of a second career for me. I went to law school about 10 years after I graduated from college. Before that, I was an administrator at Bowdoin College. I got to a place when I was working at Bowdoin where I wanted to have more opportunities in higher education to make a contribution and felt legal skills would make that possible. I really went to law school with the intent of returning to higher education.

I went to law school — Vermont Law School — as a single mom. I had a lot of people telling me I was insane. My first semester there I got in a conversation there with one of the faculty, in which he really encouraged me to focus on education law. And in my second year of law school, I got involved with the Vermont legislature’s House Education Committee. Before I graduated from law school, I did a report on school violence, which would certainly include the conduct we are talking about when we are talking about Title IX. Looking back, it was the first point when I started to delve into the interplay between protecting civil rights, violence prevention, and introducing a public health approach to some of the underlying causes of the problems that plague our schools. That report was distributed to all superintendents across all of the state and ultimately was the catalyst for a school safety act that was passed. And that act made a real difference to lots of kids in Vermont schools.