I’ve been looking into issues surrounding how colleges and universities address accusations of sexual assault for some time now. It is a much larger issue than I could ever hope to tackle in a responsible, comprehensive manner in one column. Therefore, I intend to spend at least one more week exploring what I’ve become convinced are the deeply flawed methods which academia and government have come up with to handle allegations of sexual violence.


On the first of this month, an amendment to the University’s policy regarding how it handles disciplinary complaints of sexual misconduct took effect. The new policy differs from the old in two major ways: First, responsibility for the initial investigation of claims and the first finding of responsibility was transferred from the Office of Student Conduct to the newly-created Office of the Sexual Violence Investigative Officer. Second, the hearing panel to which the initial finding may be appealed — which previously consisted of faculty and undergraduates — will now consist only of faculty who “have training and experience in handling complaints involving sexual misconduct.”

The new policies, however, fall as far short of being able to render a just outcome as the old ones did. This is primarily due to the structure of the appeals process. The IO’s decision can be appealed by either party to the disciplinary hearing panel, whose decision may in turn be appealed, again by either party, to a Disciplinary Appeals Officer. This means that, no matter how fair the procedures observed by the IO and the panel might or might not be, at the end of the day, the decision of whether or not a student will be punished for committing sexual assault may rest with one man.

I have no doubt that the DAO, a professor in the Biology department, is deeply committed to making the right decision in every case he reviews. However, under the University’s policies, he might very plausibly find himself in the unenviable position of having to single-handedly decide whether the University will hold a student responsible for actions which amount to a heinous violent crime.

It is a key tenet of our societal notions of justice and fairness that the judgement of a single individual, no matter how deeply we might trust that individual’s commitment to do what is right, is an insufficient basis upon which to decide that a person has committed a criminal act. It is for this reason that every person accused of a serious crime has the right to have their case heard by a jury of their peers.

A system which ultimately places such a decision in the hands of one professor might be sufficient for deciding whether a student has plagiarized a paper or cheated on a test, but in a matter as serious as sexual assault, it fails to serve the interests of either victims or those accused. A student who claims to have been assaulted has as much ground upon which to object to a finding of “not responsible” rendered by a single party as does a student claiming innocence who is found responsible. By mere virtue of their humanity, any single individual is liable to have their judgement affected by prejudice, by their own experiences, by love, by a thousand other things which we would never fault a person for but which might hamper their ability to decide such a serious matter with true impartiality. Because of this, we do not believe in entrusting such decisions to one person. We do not believe in benevolent autocrats, we believe in juries, in congresses, in panels and procedures.

It might be argued that such protections are unnecessary, since the stakes are not as high in a university disciplinary proceeding as in a criminal trial. To deny that the stakes are high, however, is a statement of profound naivete. The inevitable risks are either that a person with a demonstrated capacity for sexual predation remains at large within the University community, free to victimize others or that an innocent person faces the devastating, life-altering consequences of being expelled from a University for sexual assault. We should not be willing to tolerate the risk of either of these outcomes taking place if they might have been prevented by wiser policies.

ALEC WARD is a College sophomore from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is alecward@sas.upenn.edu. “Talking Backward” appears every Wednesday.

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