Yale University administrators are grappling with renewed criticism of how the Ivy League school handles sexual misconduct, two years after a complaint on the same issue spurred a federal investigation, and they're hoping that the pending release of a set of hypothetical situations will alleviate some of those concerns.
A group of 229 Yale alumni published an open letter last week demanding their alma mater make reforms to its policies on sexual assault on campus, raising concerns similar to those addressed earlier in August by "Students Against Sexual Violence at Yale," a group of current students.
The outrage was sparked by a semi-annual report released on July 31 that indicated students guilty of "nonconsensual sex" were allowed to remain enrolled at Yale and in some cases were punished only with written reprimands. While Yale community members were upset with what they consider insufficient punishment, they also focused criticism on the language used by the university to describe such assaults.
"By using the term 'nonconsensual sex' in its Report, Yale appears to reinforce the rape myth that there are two tiers of sexual assault: 'Real' sexual assault, perhaps perpetrated by strangers or with violence, and a less severe type of incident ('nonconsensual sex'), perpetrated by acquaintances or when drugs or alcohol are involved," the alumni letter said. "Yale needs to be clear: Sex without consent is sexual assault."
Yale's Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler told The Huffington Post that "nonconsensual sex" refers to "one of the behaviors that we consider sexual assault," and the using the term allows them to be more specific than they otherwise would.
"Our intention is to be as precise as we can about the behavior without providing identifying details," Spangler said, insisting that the university wants to protect the privacy of both the victims and the accused.
In addition to open letters from alumni and SASVY, the semi-annual report has led to two Change.org petitions calling for tougher penalties for sexual assault, one with 731 signatures so far, the other with more than 1,400. Spangler insists the university applies as harsh a punishment as is warranted.
"The report is an attempt to let the community know very generally what kinds of complaints are brought forward, where they are reviewed, and in very general terms, what are the outcomes," Spangler said.
In the coming weeks, the university plans to release a series of hypothetical situations to explain how it categorizes types of sexual violence and the corresponding punishments. Spangler said this is an attempt to resolve concerns that the university does not remove assailants from campus.
"We want to take the energy around this issue and move it forward," Spangler said, because the university "can't do it in the context of people's actual cases."
Chelsea Purvis and Ashwini Vasanthakumar, both Yale Law School graduates and organizers of the alumni letter, said they hope the hypothetical scenarios will shed light on why a student found guilty of sexual assault would not be expelled.
"Yale must not inappropriately use privacy concerns to shield its sexual misconduct procedures from scrutiny," Purvis and Vasanthakumar said in an email to HuffPost. "We worry that without independent oversight, it falls to public criticism to ensure that Yale is, in fact, fulfilling its legal and ethical obligations to all members of its community."