As Harvard Law School gears up to welcome a new class of students to campus this fall, we urge the administration to evaluate and disclose how it deals with the admission of students investigated or found responsible for, sexual misconduct at their previous college or university. We seek transparency on this issue so the university can engage in productive dialogue with students and administrators on how best to protect its students from sexual assault and discrimination. This information is particularly critical in light of the 2015 campus climate survey, which found that 7.6% of female graduate students experience sexual assault while attending Harvard University.
Students in the Harvard Law Gender Violence Legal Policy Workshop submitted a questionnaire to the Admissions Office seeking answers to questions of critical importance to the student community. As of the publication of this piece, we have not yet received a response. Transparency surrounding this information is important to current students’ safety and to prospective or admitted students considering attending Harvard Law School. Campus climate is a serious consideration in weighing whether or not to attend, or apply to, Harvard Law.
We sought information from the Admissions Office first regarding their process for evaluating and admitting students accused or found responsible of sexual misconduct at their prior institutions. Under Title IX, colleges and universities have an obligation to protect students from sexual violence, and they are on notice of potential violence when admitting previous offenders. Different studies estimate anywhere between 20% and 63% of campus rapists are repeat offenders.
Given these statistics, we request transparency surrounding the risk assessment taken to evaluate whether students are likely to pose a threat to their peers. Considerations may include the nature of the offense, whether the student was a repeat offender, the sanctions imposed by the prior institution, statements from dean’s offices or Title IX counselors at the prior institution, and the student’s own explanation and apology. The admissions office could also consult with the Title IX office when admitting, or determining whether to admit, a student found responsible of sexual misconduct at their former institution.
As a consequence of sexual violence, many survivors experience academic decline or gaps in their education. Given that one in four women are sexually assaulted during college at Harvard, with many other undergraduate institutions reporting similar statistics, it is likely there will be applicants to HLS who may have suffered dramatic decreases in academic performance as a result of the trauma associated with sexual assault. Should the survivor-applicant choose to disclose that information as an explanation, the Admissions Office should presume honesty on the part of the applicant. This presumption should apply irrespective of the outcome of the survivor-applicant’s claim, or whether the sexual assault went unreported. It would be inaccurate to assume that a survivor is telling the truth only when she reports an instance of rape or sexual assault because many of these instances go unreported. Over 90% of colleges reported zero acts of sexual assaults on campus in 2014, despite the fact that 20% to 25% of undergraduate women experience sexual violence. We urge the admissions office to express a formal commitment not to hold academic discrepancies against survivors in the law school admissions process.
Finally, in addition to transparency regarding the criteria for admission, we call upon the administration to collaborate across departments with respect to training and safety measures once students arrive on campus. Considerations might include internally notifying the Dean of Students office of students coming to campus with records of sexual violence and making admission contingent upon completion of sexual assault training developed by the Title IX office.
Given that the Admissions Office failed to respond to our questions, we cannot be sure whether they are currently practicing the strategies discussed above. This failure to respond admits a deeply concerning lack of transparency, one that is not an act of neutrality but a tacit acceptance of sexual assault. This is an opportunity for Harvard to unequivocally speak out against sexual assault by joining schools such as Indiana University and demonstrating an affirmative condemnation of sexual assault and making their policies publicly available. Schools owe prospective students sufficient information about risk factors in their environment so that they can make informed decisions about their academic future.
Shayna Medley, Emma O’Hara, Kelly Jo Popkin, and Dixie Tauber are 3Ls.
 We sent the following questionnaire to Associate Dean Jessica Soban, Director Tom Robinson, Associate Director Anne Taylor, and Assistant Director Nefyn Meissner in the HLS Admissions Office via email on March 30. As of the publication of this article, we have not received a response.
- What information do you ask students to disclose regarding their disciplinary records?
- Do questions capture students accused but not found responsible of sexual assault, informal as well as formal complaints?
- What information do you seek from the student and/or the prior institution to make your admissions decision?
- Is there an additional interview or in-person interview required for those with histories of sexual misconduct?
- What kinds of factors or circumstances are involved in determining how this information might impact their admission? (i.e. level of misconduct, sanction imposed by the former institution, evaluation/recommendation from former dean of students office, student’s explanation or apology statement, etc.)
- Do you undertake any official risk assessment of prospective students with histories of sexual misconduct?
- Would you consider making an admission decision contingent upon sexual assault training or counseling?
- If a student with a record of sexual misconduct is admitted, are any next steps taken when the student gets to campus? (i.e. does Admissions notify Dean of Students, or the Title IX office?)