In Spring 2012, the University approved several changes to its sexual assault policy in accordance with the U.S. Department of Education’s recommended standards for adjudicating cases of sexual assault. The changes, which make it significantly easier for Cornell students accused of rape to be found guilty, have been the subject of ongoing debate for the past year. Each side makes compelling arguments. A report of attempted rape this September — deemed by the Cornell University Police Department to have been false — has led some administrators to make bold statements asserting that the false report is indicative of the success of the new system. As the University is called upon to defend its decision to change its policy on handling sexual assault cases, we challenge the administration to find more valid ways to do so.
Among other things, the new policy lowers the burden of proof needed in these cases from the standard of “clear and convincing evidence” to that of a “preponderance of the evidence.” University counsel has defended this change as equalizing the rights afforded to the victim and the accused. But opponents of the change — including several Cornell law professors and Ithaca attorneys — have countered that the lowered evidentiary requirement denies the accused their fundamental right to procedural protection. Last semester’s false sexual assault claim does not equate to a prevalence of false reporting in these cases; national figures overwhelmingly count false reports of rape in very low numbers. But the incident does affirm that judicial proceedings must be designed with procedural safeguards that protect the accused against those rare cases.
The University’s use of the false report to defend the new policy is far-fetched. Administrators, including President David Skorton and Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88, have asserted that CUPD’s handling of the investigation is representative of the University’s ability to resist accusatory impulses. Skorton went as far as to characterize the investigation as a “terrific example of the system working.” But we do not believe CUPD’s diligence negates the argument that the policy may pose substantial risks to students falsely accused of sexual assault. Cornell’s good intentions alone are insufficient to support a reduction in procedural safeguards for the accused — few and far between though they might be.
The University’s goal of promoting justice for victims of sexual assault is, of course, laudable. As Grant noted in April after Skorton signed the changes into effect, the lowered burden of proof for sexual assault cases may serve as an encouragement for victims to come forward and file reports against their attackers. The competing interests of protecting the rights of the accused and securing justice for victims of sexual assault are difficult to reconcile in the campus adjudication process. The policies will eventually speak for themselves, but in the meantime, the University must defend its actions. The recent attempt with September’s false report is not convincing.