February 13, 2017

EDITORIAL : Beating the Bias

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On Jan. 25, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened its sixth Title IX investigation into alleged mishandling of sexual assault investigations by Cornell, making it the university with the most active Title IX investigations.

Under Title IX, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” At Cornell, that promise has come into question. The accounts of all parties involved in the recent Doe v. Roe case were unfairly evaluated under Policy 6.4, the University’s problematic policy for handling cases of sexual harassment. Cornell came under fire for instances of evident discrimination in this case. Both students accused each other of sexual assault, but Doe’s account was deemed less credible than Roe’s by the University investigator, who had “no evidence whatsoever to place the [male student] (or anyone else for that matter) at the scene of the theft.” Furthermore, when Doe took this student-against-staff issue to Laurie Johnston, head of the Office of Workplace Policy and Labor Relations, Johnston neglected to attend to Doe’s complaint until threatened with litigation.

The fact that the investigation of Doe’s discrimination complaint was so easily delayed reinforces that Policy 6.4 is “fraught with inequities.” The University’s justification for the deferral was that Doe’s previous complaint against the other student had not yet been resolved, but it weakly disguised the fact that the deferral “placed Doe in a ‘more vulnerable position.’” If the policy’s authors had the students’ best interests in mind, Policy 6.4 would not have enabled the investigators to make such a move. There are obvious holes that allow those on payroll to gain control of the system and bend it to their advantage. This specific incident of mishandling is but one of potentially more cases.

As an institution that prides itself on student diversity and its egalitarian vision of higher education, the University should take a closer look at the policy and be more cautious in appointing personnel who will not attempt to circumvent the standards that protect students’ rights to a fair investigation. Title IX is meant to benefit everyone, irrespective of gender, and continually sweeping these cases under the rug provides basis for similar incidents in the future, invites further scrutiny of university policies and throws the safety of students into a state of doubt.

Title IX investigations persist, even though the University has made revisions to Policy 6.4. If we mean to truly assert our intolerance towards bias and assault, we must push for a comprehensive review of all complaints, even those concerning university personnel. Regardless of any pre-disposition towards bias, Cornell must become more proactive in terms of protecting the stated privileges of all students.