On the evening of Oct. 13, 2010, members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Yale University marched across campus chanting, "No means yes! Yes means anal! No means yes! Yes means anal!" A video of the chanting men was posted online and quickly went viral, spurring an uproar on Yale's campus and nationwide. The message was clear: making light of rape an abhorrent, violent, dehumanizing crime is not acceptable, whatever the circumstances.
While the university was quick to issue a letter two days after the incident expressing outrage that such words were shouted on campus (and has issued several statements since), the response has been called into question in a complaint filed by 16 current and former Yale students who allege the school did not adequately punish the students involved in this incident (and a long list of past incidents). And in this inadequate reaction, complainants say, Yale appeared to condone the type of behavior the chant glorified, which in turn, precludes women from having the same access to an education at Yale as their male counterparts.
The controversy has inflamed an ongoing national debate over whether universities are doing enough to fight rape and sexual harassment of women. The discussion raises all kinds of questions including what constitutes consent and whether students accused of serious sexual violence should be expelled even if they haven't been convicted in a criminal court.
Groups promoting campus safety say that a school's failure to properly deal with these issues violates rights guaranteed by Title IX, which passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and ruled that any educational institution that takes federal funding cannot discriminate against women. (Sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape are all considered discrimination on the basis of sex.) And, by that standard, the university has an obligation to act.
In Yale's case, the complaint prompted the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to open an investigation of Yale for its "failure to eliminate a hostile sexual environment on campus, in violation of Title IX." For its part, Yale has not received a copy of the complaint and, though school officials acknowledge they conducted an investigation into the incident, they are not permitted to disclose what punishment, if any, the fraternity received.
While the Department of Education's investigation has gained wide notice in part because it involves one of the nation's most prestigious universities, Yale is hardly alone in dealing with issues of sexual harassment and assault on campus. The Office for Civil Rights has a handful of inquiries and reviews under way nationwide in addition to the Yale case, including one investigation of an incident at the University of Notre Dame in which a student at neighboring St. Mary's College committed suicide after an alleged sexual assault by a Notre Dame football player.
The statistics on these incidents are sadly familiar. One in five college women will be the victim of a sexual assault (and 6% of men). Less than 5% of those assaults will be reported to campus authorities or the police. Those numbers from the Department of Justice have been virtually unchanged for at least a decade despite a host of awareness programs, which begs the question, What more can colleges and universities do to combat sexual harassment and assault on campus?
The answer, according to the Office for Civil Rights, is a lot more. On April 8, on behalf of the agency, Vice President Joe Biden announced a new guidance on Title IX. Addressing the men in the crowd at the University of New Hampshire, Biden said, "Look, guys all you guys in the audience no matter what a girl does, no matter how she's dressed, no matter how much she's had to drink, it's never, never, never, never, never O.K. to touch her without her consent. This doesn't make you a man, it makes you a coward. A flat-out coward." The Vice President's statement seems obvious, but in actuality, knowing what constitutes consent is one issue universities have to work very hard to be sure students understand.
The new federal guidance, delivered to schools nationwide in an 18-page "Dear Colleague" letter, goes a long way in clarifying some of these issues and how universities should respond. One point is that colleges are required to perform their Title IX investigations even as criminal proceedings are under way. Which means that even while a police investigation is moving forward, measures must be taken to ensure the victim is not forced to re-encounter her assailant on a daily basis an excruciating experience that can often lead to the victim dropping out of school, thus lowering her equal access to education under Title IX. In some cases, that may mean moving the alleged perpetrator to a different dorm, changing classes or removing the accused from the school altogether.