A resolution by Students Advocating for Students (SAS) that called for changes to Tufts University’s Sexual Misconduct Policy, along with other policies, failed to pass last night at the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate’s weekly meeting.
The resolution alleged that the university’s Sexual Misconduct Policy violates students’ freedom of speech by defining sexual discrimination and sexual harassment in excessively vague terms. The resolution was the subject of vigorous debate both during the Senate’s meeting and across campus in the weeks prior. Senators ultimately voted 0-26 to reject the resolution, with two abstentions.
SAS‘s resolution did not propose specific changes to university policies, but rather urged Tufts to add clarifying language to its policies and guarantee protection of free speech for members of the community.
According to SAS President Jake Goldberg, the intention of the resolution was not to allow for sexual harassment or discrimination, but instead to push for the university to define violations in clearer terms. He said that victims of sexual harassment and discrimination should absolutely be protected, but that it is possible to protect them while preserving other students’ right to free speech.
Goldberg, a sophomore, argued that the university’s current policies do not actually lay out what students can and cannot say because they rely on a potential victim’s definition of what is offensive. For example, the resolution took issue with the Sexual Misconduct Policy‘s prohibitions on “innuendos of a sexual nature” and “inappropriate communications.”
In that sense, he said, the policies threaten students’ freedom of speech and their right to due process, which he argued runs contrary to the University President Anthony Monaco‘s stated commitment to freedom of speech.
Numerous senators and members of the Tufts community spoke out against the resolution at the Senate meeting, arguing that victims of sexual harassment and discrimination could have less protection and disciplinary recourse if the policies were altered. In addition to the senators, more than 35 students and community members attended the meeting, one of whom spoke in favor of the resolution and one of whom spoke against it.
LGBTQ+ Community Senator Parker Breza said that the proposed changes could present a danger for victims, many of whom are struggling for justice under the current policies. TCU Senate President Gauri Seth agreed, arguing that more limited policies would leave a lot of students without sufficient protection.
In an interview prior to the meeting, Goldberg told the daily that he believed vaguely-worded policies leave a tremendous amount of discretion to the administrators tasked with enforcing them, such as the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) and the Student Affairs office.
“I’m not accusing [the administrators] of having bad [intentions], but I am accusing them of writing policies that are way too vague for me to actually know what I can and cannot say,” he said.
Goldberg also said that he would prefer for the university’s policies to be based on the Supreme Court‘s decision in Davis v. Monroe (1999), which, according to the decision, held that Title IX discrimination claims should consist of conduct so severe or pervasive that it undermines the victim’s educational experience.
“To me, there’s a complete difference between an offensive comment and one that actually meets the federal definition of severe, pervasive, objectively offensive so as to deny them of their educational opportunities,” Goldberg said.
According to Goldberg, members of SAS have met with university administrators such as Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon with the intention of pushing for the proposed changes. He said that he hoped that the resolution would give additional leverage in lobbying the administration.
As the resolution points out, Tufts’ Sexual Misconduct Policy lists innuendos, jokes and sexist statements as conduct that could potentially amount to harassment. However, the policy qualifies that list with a larger definition of sexual harassment.
The Sexual Misconduct Policy explicitly states that unwanted conduct is harassment if it interferes with an individual’s work or academic performance, or if it is a condition of employment or academic status.
Conduct rises to that level, the policy states, when it is “sufficiently serious, pervasive or persistent as to create an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, demeaning, discriminatory or sexually offensive working, academic, residential or social environment.”
Additionally, the policy states that harassment is judged both by a subjective standard, which is based on the perception of the complainant, and by an objective standard, which is based on whether any reasonable person would view the conduct as harassment.
According to OEO Executive Director Jill Zellmer, OEO is responsible for investigating reports of discrimination as a neutral fact-finder. She said that the policies in the Sexual Misconduct Policy are designed to correspond to state and federal law, and that they were recently reviewed by the university’s Sexual Misconduct Prevention Task Force.
Zellmer added that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has conditionally approved the university’s Sexual Misconduct Policy. Because of regulatory oversight and legal ramifications, Zellmer said that Tufts does not necessarily have legal leeway to change the language of the policies. Nonetheless, she said that OEO is open to student input about the desire for specifics.
“The Office of Equal Opportunity remains open to feedback from the Tufts community about all of its policies and procedures,” Zellmer told the Daily in an email. “We regularly review and revise our policies to meet community needs as appropriate.”
After the TCU Senate voted down SAS’s resolution, Goldberg told the daily that he was disappointed in senators’ responses to the resolution. However, he said that he plans to continue SAS’s mission.
“We’re still going to take this cause to the public, with regards to the Tufts community as well as with the administrators,” Goldberg said. “The buck doesn’t stop here by any means.”