Hannah Zeavin, a Yale junior from Brooklyn, said, “If you’re not expelling people who are committing rape, as was the case with my friends’ assailants, that means those men are still around.”
NEW HAVEN — It has taken on the predictability of an annual ritual, like parents’ weekend or commencement: the outburst of raunchy male behavior that has shaken the Yale University campus in each of the last few school years.
In 2008, fraternity members photographed themselves in front of the Yale Women’s Center with a poster reading, “We Love Yale Sluts.” In 2009, a widely e-mailed “preseason scouting report” rated the desirability of about 50 newly arrived freshman women by the number of drinks a man would need in order to have sex with them. And in October, fraternity pledges paraded through a residential quadrangle chanting: “No means yes!”
Catherine Sheard, a junior from Canton, N.Y., heard the chants while studying, and reacted the way many students have. “I thought it was really obnoxious and closed the window,” she said.
Suddenly, however, these episodes have the campus in a state of high alert. Yale acknowledged last week that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights was investigating a complaint filed by 16 students and recent graduates, accusing the university of violating Title IX, the federal gender-equality law, by failing to eliminate a hostile sexual environment on campus. The complaint alleges a range of acts against women, from taunts to assaults, over seven years.
The Yale administration has responded swiftly, saying it had zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and announcing the creation of a university-wide committee to streamline a disciplinary process that is now handled differently at each of its schools. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. even weighed in this week; though not mentioning Yale, he urged colleges to do more to prevent sexual violence, emphasizing that “no means no.”
In Yale dormitories and online forums, the federal investigation has been a prime topic, with many students echoing the frustrations voiced in the complaint.
In interviews, some undergraduates said the administration had become bogged down in confidentiality rules and its own tortuous procedures, missing a bigger truth about the treatment of women, who make up slightly more than half of the student body.
“I don’t think that the sexual culture is worse here than it is at other places,” said Caroline Tracey, a sophomore from Denver. “But the fact that we seem to have one incendiary, misogynistic act a year seems to say that the university isn’t being punitive enough against these large-scale activities.”
Conor Crawford, a junior from Des Moines, said he had detected a tolerance on campus for crude comments about women that contrasted with a greater deference shown to gay and minority students. “There are a lot of close female friends I have here who have felt threatened,” he said. “You can hear the same language in some all-male suites, with the word ‘bitch’ used a lot and just general objectification.”
Still, some students dismissed episodes like the fraternity chants as stupid pranks; the chanting, some said, was an act of hazing and humiliation for the pledges, calculated for maximum shock value on a campus known for its liberal leanings.
“It was very inappropriate, but I genuinely believe that that’s not something they are preaching,” said Natalie Romine, a senior who has friends in the fraternity.
The 26-page complaint, filed on March 15, has not been made public. But a news release by some who signed it detailed what they called the university’s “inadequate response to a long trend of public sexual harassment,” including the chanting last fall by pledges of Delta Kappa Epsilon. The complaint also cites “Yale’s failure to appropriately address” several instances of “private sexual harassment and assault,” the release said.
A 2010 graduate who signed the complaint — Presca Ahn, a Fulbright scholar in London — said in a phone interview that one of those cases involved an undergraduate who had been sexually assaulted. Ms. Ahn said that in the complaint, the student describes reporting her case to the university’s Sexual Harassment Grievance Board, which, according to Yale, offers “a range of formal and informal resolution procedures”; the student writes that the board discouraged her from going to the police or to Yale’s more punitive disciplinary board, the Executive Committee.
“It’s so weird that something that is actually a crime should be lost in the quote, ‘confidential private family court of Yale,’ ” Ms. Ahn said.
Yale officials said they had not seen the complaint, and were trying to obtain it through a Freedom of Information Act request. In a letter to students, Mary Miller, dean of Yale College, urged students to report all sexual crimes to the Yale police, and said the university welcomed the investigation as an “opportunity to learn more and do better.”
“To all of you, I can say that I am saddened and troubled by the allegations of the complaint,” Dr. Miller wrote. “I can also say without equivocation that Yale does not tolerate sexual harassment or misconduct of any kind.”
Administrators said they sympathized with those who were unhappy with the disciplinary process. Punishing students in public episodes like the chanting is complicated by a hallowed tradition of free speech on campus, as well as by fraternities’ independence from the university and by confidentiality requirements that prevent Yale from naming students it disciplines.
The private cases are even more problematic, officials said, with victims often not wanting to go to the police or even a disciplinary board. Some victims prefer to deal with sexual harassment informally — having a male student moved to another dorm, for example. Most do not go to the administration at all: Studies show that nationwide, more than 90 percent of college students who are sexually assaulted do not tell anyone in authority.
Dr. Miller said that efforts to discipline students for the chants last fall were continuing; a faculty fact-finder has filed a report, she said, and the case will be resolved by the end of the semester. As for the “scouting report” that circulated two years ago, The Yale Daily News reported that a senior who forwarded the e-mail was reprimanded.
While some students saw the chanting of “No means yes” as mere provocation, Hannah Zeavin, a junior from Brooklyn who signed the complaint, said she found the question of sexual consent no joking matter. She said that a Yale friend was raped during her first month on campus in 2008, and that she knew of others who had been sexually assaulted.
“If you’re not expelling people who are committing rape, as was the case with my friends’ assailants, that means those men are still around,” she said. “That means that I’ve been in class with them, and I’ve been in parties where there’s more than one of them.”
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