Sexual harassment and assault dominated headlines over the past year and represent a deeply ingrained problem in society, including on college campuses across the United States. Yet Harvard’s work to both prevent and respond to instances of sexual and gender-based harassment and assault dates back further than the current focus.

In 2013, Harvard established a University-wide Title IX Office, as well as a task force to examine the issue of sexual and gender-based harassment and assault. In 2014, the University implemented a sexual and gender-based harassment policy, which for the first time applied to all members of the Harvard community, and the University also established the Office for Dispute Resolution (ODR) to investigate complaints of sexual and gender-based harassment neutrally and professionally.

Since then, Harvard has built a team of ODR investigators and Title IX specialists seeking to address this extremely sensitive area of human conduct with fairness, discretion, and understanding. In addition to the central staff, Harvard has created a network of more than 50 trained Title IX coordinators across campus. In 2015, Harvard conducted a student survey to better understand the incidence of sexual assault and harassment, which garnered a significant response rate of 52 percent. The survey shed light on the alarming frequency with which students, especially undergraduates, experience incidents of sexual assault. The survey also underscored that many students lack confidence in Harvard’s response to reports of sexual misconduct, and that many students lack awareness of the resources and support available to them.

Since 2015, the University has worked to expand resources for individuals who experience sexual and gender-based harassment, including assault. Customized online training modules for students, faculty, and staff were developed. Since its inception, more than 25,000 individuals have completed the module training.

Earlier this month, the University announced a new director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response (OSAPR), and Harvard Provost Alan Garber and Executive Vice President Katie Lapp recently sent a message to University leaders informing them that starting this fall all staff and faculty members will be required to complete an online module that provides a common baseline of information on the University’s policy and available resources. The message also outlined new charges for the Title IX policy review committee, headed by Donald Pfister, the Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany and curator of the Farlow Library and Herbarium.

The Gazette recently sat down with Pfister and Deputy Provost Peggy Newell, who oversees the Title IX Office and ODR, to discuss the latest developments in this area.


Peggy Newell & Donald Pfister

GAZETTE: Sexual harassment and assault have been in the headlines a lot this year. How has that influenced the work done in this realm at Harvard?

NEWELL: I think it’s important to note that we didn’t just start this when the #MeToo movement started. We have been doing this for some time.

PFISTER: It’s easy to think that nobody thought about this before. But of course, people were, it just wasn’t organized in the same way. But there was recognition that there were issues and problems that needed to be addressed. The Title IX movement kind of codified it in a way that it wasn’t before.

GAZETTE: There was a lot of attention paid to this issue back when Title IX and ODR were just starting out, with several news articles, and people on campus were very aware of what was happening. As the offices have hit their stride, there’s been less in the news. But I think there have been changes and growth in both of those offices. Can you talk about what’s new in the last two years?

NEWELL: When the offices were created, they were put into an ecosystem that already had a lot of people working in it. People at the Schools and across human resources were doing various things that they’d done independently in the past; there was a vast network of Title IX coordinators; OSAPR was operating in this space. We had a task force. We’ve had a variety of other committees, student groups, and administrative boards involved. Some of what we’ve been doing over the last two to three years is actually figuring out how all of those pieces can work well together and to make sure that all of them do work well together.

We made a decision last year to separate Title IX and ODR. It used to be that ODR reported to the Title IX officer. Now each of those offices reports directly to me. Title IX focuses more of its effort on education and prevention, and ODR focuses mostly on investigations. Although we call on ODR sometimes to participate in educational efforts, its primary focus is to do neutral, impartial investigations when there are complaints. By separating the offices, the students, staff, and faculty now have a better understanding and greater confidence that sharing a disclosure with the Title IX office is not the same as filing a formal complaint with ODR.

GAZETTE: We usually think about Title IX in the context of sexual harassment and assault. But a large portion of the work done at Harvard focuses on education and prevention. How does that work take shape, and why is it so important to the University?

NEWELL: In a perfect world, we would prevent this kind of behavior so that all members of our community can have equal access to all aspects of life at Harvard, can thrive in this environment, and won’t be impeded by virtue of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Our educational efforts are aimed at prevention and at helping people to understand what resources are available if they do experience sexual or gender-based harassment.

PFISTER: Title IX, in its biggest purview, is access and equal access.

GAZETTE: Title IX has also been involved in developing and implementing online training modules, right?

NEWELL: The Title IX office has been working closely with the Schools on this, and it’s really important that we give credit to all of the Schools for being part of it — no one person did all of this individually. The president provided the funding, but every School had people involved in creating these. Together with the network of Title IX coordinators at the Schools, the Title IX Office has worked on creating training modules for the Harvard community. Each School has one especially for its own students, and then we did a faculty and staff version.

This is not intended to be the sole form of training for our community; we also have had hundreds of in-person trainings this year. But this is meant to give everybody a common baseline that provides a summary of the University’s policy and procedures, familiarizes people with the resources that they can access if they have issues, and also helps people to understand what kinds of conduct are problematic.

PFISTER: I think it’s important to note that the policy applies to everyone in the University. I think from the standpoint of the committee, what we’re seeing and realizing is just how complicated it is across the different Schools, with different expectations, with different types of faculty, with different types of activities going on.

GAZETTE: How does the policy review committee fit into this work?

PFISTER: Well, we are the overseers of policy and procedures. In that role, we look at how things are working. We’ve spent a lot of time reviewing the policy and arguing about it and thinking about how things might be worded differently. We’re pretty happy with the way the policy is set up. But the way that we do this is that we’ve talked to lots of different people, constituents across the University, and tried to get an idea of how it is working on the ground.

We are also gathering statistics. What are the numbers like? Who are the people who are involved, and how are those cases being resolved? Ultimately, we are thinking: Is this working? Are there communities or groups that are being unduly accused or investigated? We’ve found this is not the case. Are there ways in which the policy and procedures can work better? We’ve found a number of those and made recommendations. So we’re kind of the watchers.

NEWELL: We launched the committee soon after we launched the policy and procedures, and from the beginning it was intended that this be a look at how things are working. It wasn’t the case that the committee was supposed to start making changes immediately. It was the case that the committee would start to review and learn about how things have been applied and what the policy has been doing in practice, and then, as data accumulates, it would recommend changes.

PFISTER: I think that out in the community, out in the world, there may be the impression that we’re looking at cases and evaluating cases. We’re not doing that. Ours is a refined view of how the cases are coming and how people are being treated and handled within the context of the policy and procedures.

GAZETTE: Who serves on the committee?

PFISTER: There’s a representative from each School as well as from central administration, and there are faculty, staff, administrators, and students.

GAZETTE: You mentioned that the committee has already recommended some changes. Are there any others or things that have come about as a part of your work?

PFISTER: One example would be language and length of ODR reports. There was a sense that the reports were too long and therefore unapproachable in a certain way, and then that the language veered toward the legal perhaps too far. So those have been addressed.

GAZETTE: Both Title IX and ODR had new positions that have recently been filled. There’s also been a lot of attention paid to the increased disclosures this academic year. I wonder, in your mind, is there a sweet spot in terms of staffing? Will the office continue to grow?

NEWELL: I think we are trying to right-size the office. I don’t think there’s any office that should just continue to grow. We have used outside resources on a temporary basis from law firms when we’ve needed to supplement the staff. We’ve also created a pipeline program to train people to fill these positions. It’s important to note that as disclosures and formal complaints rise, this doesn’t mean there are more incidents. It just means there’s more reporting. At some point, you would expect that you will have taken care of the pent-up demand, and you will actually plateau. Ideally, with education, outreach, and a community that does not tolerate harassment, we would see the number decline.

PFISTER: I think one of the things to think about with growth is that, from the very start, we were told that as the office and communication around these issues grows, and as people become aware, that we should be expecting to have a growth in the number of cases. And that will continue for a while.

GAZETTE: What’s on the horizon for the committee, and how does President Drew Faust’s new charge fit into the work that you see yourselves doing?

PFISTER: I think it fits pretty logically with what we’re doing. A lot of this is phrased around the imbalance of power that we have within a community that’s an academic community where there is continual grading and evaluating. Even if we as individuals don’t feel that we’re in a powerful position, in fact we are, and we have to be conscious of that. I think where we’re at right now is trying to figure out what’s the institutional message to faculty, particularly. That’s going to vary from School to School.

It’s not clear that it’s a unified message, other than “Don’t do this.” But how to incorporate this into the fabric of the community, that’s the big issue. How to change the culture so that nobody has to endure something that they shouldn’t, that is part of this power balance. We talk a lot about culture shifts. It’s really hard to do this, to think about how to address culture shifts. But in this case, with students and faculty, faculty and staff, it’s the culture. And how do we address that? That’s on the horizon.

NEWELL: And it’s not at all unique to Harvard. There is a problem across academia, and we have to come to grips with this as a community. So while the committee will make some recommendations on things that we could do, it is going to take everybody working together to actually make this work better for people.

PFISTER: I think it’s really important to understand that our policy, being a University-wide one, isn’t the only thing that’s needed. Because the fact is that one policy, to apply to these many different constituencies across these many Schools, it is going to have to be the lowest level of behavior that’s tolerable. The policy is written very much to mirror the legal standards of sexual and gender-based harassment, but it is by no means defining the ideal of how we would like those in our community to behave. The University-wide policy requires that something be persistent and pervasive or severe. This is actually a minimal standard of behavior. It’s not the standard that we want people to aspire to. It simply sets a floor for what won’t be tolerated.