This Law Professor Is Taking On The Ivy League To Change The Way Elite Colleges Handle Sexual Assault

Wendy Murphy LawyerCourtesy of Wendy MurphyNew England School of Law professor and sexual assault activist Wendy Murphy.

New England School of Law professor Wendy Murphy has challenged two of the most prestigious universities in the world — and won.

Towards the end of last year, the Department of Education found that both Princeton University and Harvard Law School had violated Title IX regulations by mishandling sexual assault complaints, leading to changed policies in how the schools protect their students. Murphy — a sexual violence law expert and longtime activist — filed both of the complaints.

Murphy first took on Harvard in 2002, arguing in a Title IX complaint on behalf of an anonymous student that Harvard’s policy of requiring “sufficient independent corroboration” for a sexual assault investigation violated laws against gender-based discrimination. The university subsequently changed the policy.

Harvard Law School hired Murphy in 2010 to work on a Title IX matter, but declined to change anything from her recommendations, she said, leading to her filing another complaint against the university.

Murphy said that, at the time, she thought “If OCR [the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights] opens this investigation and makes a decision, people will pay attention, because it’s Harvard.”

Murphy was initially concerned that the federal government might decline to investigate the law school, President Obama’s alma mater and one of the best programs in the country.

“I wasn’t convinced Harvard Law would be investigated, given how powerful it is,” she said, but was pleasantly surprised when she recieved a call from OCR informing her of the investigation.

Around the same time as the Harvard Law complaint was moving forward, the family of a Princeton student hired Murphy to represent them in an action against the school. While she said she did not seek out lawsuits against these highly regarded schools, her experience in sexual assault advocacy gave her an understanding of the types of problems at the top campuses.

For example, Harvard and Princeton were among the last schools to adopt the federally mandated “preponderance of evidence” standard for sexual misconduct cases, maintaining the stricter “clear and convincing” standard up through 2014 that most other Ivies had done away with years before. The stricter burden of proof made it more difficult to find students responsible for sexual assault.

In 2012, Murphy told The Harvard Crimson the Law School’s “clear and convincing” standard sent a disheartening message to students making sexual misconduct complaints. “‘We do believe you­ — we just don’t believe you that much.'”

“I was keenly aware of the fact that the elite and Ivy League schools were less compliant than lower tier schools. It was a lot harder for students to hold the elite schools accountable,” she said to Business Insider.

According to Murphy, students at these elite schools were often “not willing to be sacrificial lambs” due to a “fear of retaliation” and “career concerns.” Female students may have been especially hesitant to come forward as victims, she said, as they are still “relatively new in the Ivies.”

“There was a lot of pressure on the victims not to rock the boat and complain,” Murphy said.

However, according to Murphy, when just a few women from these top schools began to come forward and question the policies that were in place, it “made it safer and easier for women at all universities to speak out.”

Despite the recent policy changes, there may still be an ongoing battle against some of the most prestigious universities in the country. Based on her private interactions with some Harvard law professors, Murphy said, “there is an a very unapologetic and, in my opinion, arrogant attitude among some academics that violence against women deserves second class treatment.”

While the perceived problems with the Ivy League schools’ sexual assault policies may be more visible due to their academic prominence, this is by no means an issue that is only limited to the elite universities.

More than 90 colleges are currently under investigation by the OCR for alleged Title IX violations, covering a range of schools, both geographically and academically. Nor are the Ivies the only schools that have documented issues with Title IX. In December, the Department of Education also announced that Southern Methodist University had violated the policy.

Despite the prevalence of these problems, Murphy isn’t the only sexual assault activist to be particularly troubled by how the Ivy League universities handle campus misconduct.

“It’s mostly at these elite schools that we see a real pushback,” Laura Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice, told Inside Higher Ed in November. “To put it bluntly, I think it’s arrogance and ingrained male privilege, but I think they’re starting to get the message.”

We’ve reached out to both Princeton and Harvard for comment.

A Princeton spokesperson directed us to this statement from President Christopher Eisgruber after the Title IX investigation results were announced in November. We will update with any statement we receive from Harvard.

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