Improving the Way MIT Handles
Sexual Assault Complaints
Sexual assault happens at MIT. We know this from our first-hand experience on the Committee on Discipline (COD), as well as from the Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault (CASA) survey that MIT conducted in April 2014. Our experience with the COD has given us a unique opportunity to reflect on the best ways to fairly adjudicate such misconduct.
The COD is one of 12 standing committees of the faculty. The student, faculty, and staff members of the COD are responsible for equitably resolving all complaints alleging that a student has engaged in misconduct, including sexual harassment and sexual assault. The COD uses an objective process to ensure that both the accuser and the accused have a fair opportunity to be heard and their interests protected.
During the summer of 2014, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart charged a task force to examine the COD’s practices and procedures for resolving sexual misconduct and other related types of cases. The task force was specifically asked to identify any necessary changes to ensure the COD process is accessible, fair, prompt, consistent, and streamlined.
The task force – composed of students, staff, faculty, and representatives of the COD – carefully reviewed the COD’s current procedures, the results of the CASA survey, the relevant legal framework, processes at peer institutions, and MIT's existing policies. Having reviewed these data, the task force engaged in sustained dialogue about the best way to handle cases of sexual misconduct.
As a result of this work, the task force recommended improvements to the manner in which the COD handles student sexual misconduct cases. These recommendations were shared with the entire MIT community in April 2015. The task force held a town hall meeting to discuss the recommendations with interested members of the community. Electronic comment submissions were invited and encouraged as well. We were pleased to receive many thoughtful comments and suggestions.
The task force reviewed all submitted feedback and, following consultation with Faculty Policy Committee and the current COD membership, proposed new rules to enact these recommendations. The new rules went into effect in November 2015. The final task force recommendations, a flowchart depicting the COD’s new process, and other related documents are available online at cod.mit.edu/taskforce.
While it is not possible to detail all of the task force’s recommendations here, we share several observations about what the task force learned from its careful study of this issue:
- MIT must have a fair and functioning internal process for resolving cases of sexual misconduct and assault. Some commenters suggested that MIT should refer all cases to the police and take no internal action. However, having an internal process is a legal requirement that MIT must meet in order to keep our students eligible for federal financial aid. In addition, the task force believes that MIT has a moral obligation to respond as promptly and fairly to sexual assault reports as we do to all other types of complaints. The COD has experience successfully handling other issues that have potential significance in the criminal courts and, with comprehensive training, the COD can also effectively handle sexual assault cases. All students who come forward to the COD will be given the option to report their cases to the police, but will not be required to do so.
- The task force asserts that the COD should continue to operate with fairness to both accuser and accused as a guiding principle and should view both parties as individuals who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of the allegations or outcome of the case. The task force recommended that the revised COD process continue to incorporate robust procedures to ensure equity and fair treatment of both parties, and the new rules put in place do this. These procedures include the accused being presumed to be not responsible unless the COD believes that a preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that a policy violation occurred; both parties having the same right to access the evidence and information in the case; having a fair opportunity to submit and respond to evidence and statements; having the right to have an advisor of their choosing participate in the process; and to appeal.
- The task force endeavored to reduce barriers that a person might perceive make it difficult for them to bring an issue to the COD. The CASA data indicate that the reasons people chose not to come forward are not related to the COD. Nevertheless, sexual assault is dramatically underreported. Some commentators and members of the task force opined that students would be less likely to come forward if a student COD member is involved in reviewing their cases.
While we have great respect for the student members of the COD and remain confident in their ability to keep information confidential, the task force concluded that having more people feel comfortable coming forward was of critical importance. Accordingly, the task force recommended – and the new rules specify – that student members of the COD not participate in resolving sexual misconduct cases. This recommendation had the unanimous support of all students on the task force. The student members of COD will continue to serve on all other cases and make valuable contributions.
- The task force outlined steps the COD can take to make the process less burdensome on both the accuser and the accused. Relying on a professional investigator so that the students do not have primary responsibility for preparing documents and materials for their cases; setting up a hearing procedure that uses technology so that both students can fully participate without being in the same room; and aiming for quicker resolutions are three examples of changes that have been incorporated in the new COD rules.
- Handling these cases with sufficient subject matter knowledge, empathy, and respect for the rights of both students requires substantial training and targeted experience. Accordingly, the task force recommended a small subcommittee of COD members be appointed who will receive extensive training in these areas and be responsible for all sexual misconduct complaints. This will be a major investment of time and energy for the members of this subcommittee. The task force recommended those members be selected based on qualifications and have this substantial investment of time recognized by an appropriate reduction in other time commitments. Members of the subcommittee have been seated and training has begun. Additionally, the amount of staff and resources allocated toward the resolution of these cases will be reviewed this year.
- There is an inherent tension between the COD’s desire to be transparent to the entire community about its actions in sexual misconduct cases and the desire of both the accuser and the accused for privacy. The task force recommended that the COD try to meet both needs when it is possible to do so. When it is not possible, the task force directed the COD to value the individual privacy of students involved over the transparency needs of the community.
With these thoughts in mind, we invite you to get involved. Learn about the COD process and share this information with students. Consider joining the COD for the 2016-17 academic year or nominating a colleague. The COD – with rigorous fairness, a commitment to holding our students accountable to a high standard of behavior, and an ethic of care – is an expression of our values as a community.