Letter from the Editor: In Response to an Honor Code fairer than Title IX proceedings
Professor Sergio Verdú is teaching a course next semester: Information Theory, ELE 528, despite his being found guilty of sexually harassing his advisee by a University Title IX investigation. He sexually harassed someone. He is still here.
And his still being here manifests just why the accused – and the guilty – in cases of sexual assault and harassment adjudicated at the University do not need to be afforded more rights and in fact, privileges, as Allison Berger posits in her first argument of a recent Letter to the Editor. A respondent party has the right of appeal. Rather, the accusers – the victims – need to be afforded more protections, as I have seen firsthand with vulnerable friends and peers on this campus.
Berger advocates for a higher standard of evidence in Title IX cases in her third argument, contending the inadequacy of the current standard: “a preponderance of the evidence.” This is one area that Secretary of Education DeVos announced changes in, rescinding Obama-era guidelines for how universities should handle sexual assault accusations. The current standard, as used in all civil cases in the U.S., “gives equal weight to both the complainant and the respondent,” as SHARE wrote in a statement on Title IX in November. Furthermore, SHARE argues, “The clear and convincing standard of evidence requires that the complainant show that something is substantially more likely than not to have occurred. It thus raises the bar for findings of responsibility.”
Raising the burden of proof, as Berger suggests, would only make it more difficult for sexual assault cases to be fairly adjudicated, and more difficult for victims to come forward and have their stories be met with credence. It is already difficult enough to do so in a social and political context that makes individuals hesitant to report incidents of sexual misconduct.
Berger’s fourth argument brings forth the higher number of committee/panel members required to find the student responsible in an Honor Code violation case as opposed to a sexual assault case. However, she fails to highlight an important, and concerning, disparity: The Honor Committee comprises entirely of students, as laid out in Article 2.3.2 in Rights, Rules, Responsibilities. In stark contrast, the Title IX investigative panel consists of administrators and/or outside investigators, appointed by the Title IX coordinator, as explained in Article 1.3.12 of RRR. Thus, the number of people adjudicating pales in comparison to the background of those adjudicating.
The fate of a student should not be entirely placed in the hands of other students, which leads me to my next point. Berger asserts the impartiality and unbiased nature of Honor Committee members in her fifth argument. However, I maintain my reservations in that regard, and have little faith in the current system, as reinforced by the University administration’s recent announcement to roll back overdue reform.
Ultimately, I agree with Berger’s overarching argument. Yes, the Honor Code Constitution presents stipulations far stricter than those presented by Title IX regulations, both enumerated in Rights, Rules, Responsibilities. I, as a proponent of Honor Code reform, share the values she writes about: fairness and justice, as do all other proponents of reform.
I am not arguing that the panel – or adjudication process – in a Title IX case is completely fair or just. I am arguing that neither system is fair or just.
But that is exactly why we need to reform Title IX procedures – and how we approach sexual misconduct allegations overall – to make it more just towards the victims, the survivors. And that is exactly why we need to reform the Honor Code to make it fairer, because “we take using a calculator in an exam more seriously than we take violating Title IX.” These are both causes that proponents of Honor Code reform are, have been, and will continue advocating and fighting for.
I will end with a note of caution: Let us not so liberally create parallels between Title IX cases and Honor Code cases, between the offense committed by a student on a final paper or exam with the crime committed by an individual against another. I see the merits for such comparisons, and neither act is victimless. However, the latter causes permanent harm, and for that reason, I see it as highly unfair – and atrocious – to even begin to compare going overtime on an exam or using a prohibited calculator with sexually violating another human being.
Sarah Sakha is Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Princetonian. This letter represents the views of the Editor-in-Chief only; she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.