Despite national pressure for universities to be more transparent about how they handle sexual assault on campus, Penn remains firm in its decision not to detail how it punishes perpetrators of sexual misconduct.
Previous disciplinary statistics released by the Office of Student Conduct do not differentiate between sanctions issued for sexual assault and harassment and other types of misconduct, such as noise complaints. OSC plans to publish disciplinary statistics in January for the first time in four years, but the reports will be “similar to the reports that happened prior to 2010” — the last time an annual report was issued, OSC Director Julie Lyzinski Nettleton said in a November interview.
The statistics it has released quantify outcomes and sanctions under the broad categories of academic integrity violations and student conduct violations. Meanwhile, schools such as Yale and Columbia have begun issuing reports on sexual misconduct, which show complainants’ and respondents’ affiliations to the universities and the outcomes of specific types of cases — such as non-consensual intercourse. But this level of transparency is the exception.
“The norm really is to give out as little as the law requires when it comes to discipline,” said Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Virginia-based Student Press Law Center. “In general, I think the trend at universities is to be more and more secretive.”
“Colleges are much more image-conscious than they’ve ever been because of competition for dollars and competition for students,” he added.
The University maintains that privacy concerns bar it from releasing more detailed information.
“The closer you get to attaching a sanction to a certain case, the more potential information you’re divulging to the community about any specific student’s specific case, which we don’t do,” Nettleton said. If there were only one case of vandalism, for example, releasing sanctions for vandalism in general could identify a specific student, Nettleton said.
LoMonte disagreed, saying that in most cases, students either know the person in ques tion — and therefore know the outcome anyway — or are not familiar with the case at all.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the student body is entitled to know the range of sanctions with each disciplinary action and how often those are given out,” LoMonte added.
But even schools with smaller student populations — such as Brown University, which has around 8,600 students compared to Penn’s 24,600 — do identify sanctions for specific disciplinary violations, even when there is only one such case. In its 2013-14 report, Brown divulged the sanctions determined by its Student Conduct Board for physical assault, distribution of drugs, harassment, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct — even when there was only one case in a given term.
Schools’ hesitancy to disclose disciplinary information is also evident in how officials choose to talk about the decision to publish statistics. One Ivy League administrator spoke on the condition of anonymity because the university’s communications department did not authorize public comment — despite the school’s relatively transparent reporting.
The administrator wrote in an email about the importance of keeping relevance to readers in mind.
“Part of the decision to publish information in a particular way, for any school, involves considering what will be meaningful to the reader in consideration of the actual data,” the administrator wrote. “We wanted to be thoughtful about the categories in relation to the number of cases, as not to directly identify students, but still provide an accurate portrayal of the information. And because the numbers are low, we wanted to write enough description that helped to provide context to our data.”
The administrator added that creating the document is an arduous task requiring a lot of planning and labor.
As Penn prepares to launch a new investigatory office dedicated to sexual assault, Nettleton said OSC will have more time to focus on long-term projects and education initiatives. The responsibility to report on sexual misconduct cases will fall on the new office, which will open next semester.
Currently, sexual assault statistics are more readily available on some Ivy websites than academic integrity or other conduct-related data. Columbia, for example, only releases statistics on sexual assault data to the public. Yale’s sexual misconduct reports — which multiple Ivy League disciplinary administrators called some of the most transparent due to the descriptive anecdotes of individual cases — are also the only type of disciplinary report readily available on the school’s website.
LoMonte, of the Student Press Law Center, said Yale’s in-depth reports show “it’s possible to do that without the roof falling in. Once a few colleges do that and nothing terrible happens, it will be hard for other colleges to say they can’t.”
While relatively opaque compared to Yale and Columbia’s reports, Penn has more data available on disciplinary cases than some others in the Ivy League. Cornell, for example, has yet to develop a system of reporting, though it’s currently in the process of doing so. Previously, the school has “sporadically released cumulative statistics,” last in 2003 by request of The Cornell Daily Sun, the school’s Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant said in a phone interview.
Harvard’s Administrative Board website only offers an aggregate number of cases voted on, denied or rescinded for several types of sanctions in the past five years. The types of violations received are not reported.
Penn’s reports do not require a school login to access, unlike Dartmouth — for reports prior to the previous academic year — and Princeton.
Disciplinary directors at other universities spoke of the difficulty of balancing transparency with privacy concerns.
“We want to convey to all observers that our process is fair,” Grant said. “We can’t necessarily get into the details of why it’s fair when you’re just looking at statistics.”
Leigh Remy, the director of Dartmouth’s Office of Judicial Affairs, echoed this point, explaining that the school aggregates data on cases and outcomes similar to Penn because its purpose is to “help people anticipate choices” and educate the community.
“An interest is different from a need to know,” Remy said. “A lot of times people want information because sometimes it’s just gossip [that] they’re looking for. If the need for the information is that you’re not trusting the process, I think there are other ways to do that that’s not violating student privacy.” She said that getting involved in a school’s disciplinary process might be one way to do this.
But LoMonte said that in violent misconduct cases, public reporting by universities is “essential now that disciplinary boards are asked to handle behavior that would otherwise be federal-level criminal conduct,” where a public record would be available anyway.
Nettleton said that Penn’s process is “as transparent as we can get without violating any student privacy or confidentiality.” She added that more data is not necessary to identify key areas to work on or educate the community about.
“We need to protect that [disciplinary] process,” Nettleton said, “and we need to make sure that students and community members feel comfortable being a part of that process knowing that we’re not going to be even alluding to outcomes or info that the public doesn’t need.”
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