MIT creates working group in response to new Title IX regulations

Whittle and Dahleh wrote that MIT will ‘make changes to how we investigate and resolve complaints of sexual harassment and assault’

The U.S. Department of Education released new Title IX guidelines May 6. In response, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 has charged a working group with analyzing the guidelines and assessing their impact on sexual misconduct response at MIT. 

Barnhart wrote in a letter to the MIT community January 2019 that “the proposed rules will create barriers to reporting sexual misconduct, to receiving support, and to seeking recourse.” Barnhart added that MIT and other institutions of higher education expressed concerns about the new regulations after a draft was released November 2018.

The regulations define sexual harassment to include sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking. They also require schools to respond promptly to allegations of sexual harassment and offer survivors supportive measures, “such as class or dorm reassignments or no-contact orders.”

Advocacy groups including the National Women’s Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized key provisions of the updated regulations and announced intentions to challenge the new regulations in court.

Critics have spoken out against the regulations’ strict definition of sexual assault as “unwelcome conduct that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to education,” the legalistic requirements of the new rules, and the requirement that universites hold hearings that include cross-examinations. 

Another concern is that universities are only obligated to investigate allegations said to have occurred on campus, in houses owned by school-sanctioned organizations, or at locations where the school has “substantial control” over students.

Barnhart wrote in an email to the MIT community May 8 that a working group co-chaired by Professor Andrew Whittle ScD ‘87 and Professor Munther Dahleh will analyze the regulations and assess their impact. Barnhart wrote that the Institute’s “top priority remains creating a safe, respectful, and welcoming environment for everyone — one that does not tolerate sexual harassment and assault.” 

Whittle and Dahleh wrote in an email to The Tech that “unfortunately, the most pressing concerns cited by MIT and other institutions of higher education were not addressed” in the finalized regulations.

Whittle and Dahleh wrote that MIT “will be required to make changes to how we investigate and resolve complaints of sexual harassment and assault that fall within the parameters of the rule.” 

“We will do everything we can to ensure that the implementation of the new rule does not impact our ability to build on the considerable progress we’ve made to create a culture that has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct,” they wrote.

Whittle and Dahleh wrote that the roles of the MIT Title IX Coordinator and Director of Violence Prevention and Response will not change significantly due to the new regulations: “They will still be here to provide support and guidance for community members, and will continue their work toward preventing and responding to sexual harassment and misconduct at MIT.” However, “the advice and instruction that our professionals offer to community members may need to be adjusted in some cases.”

Whittle and Dahleh wrote that some members of the working group are “reviewing the 2,033-page Title IX regulations, and will bring their analysis… on MIT’s existing processes to the entire working group.” The working group will then “make recommendations to senior leadership” that retain the “support, protection, and equity afforded to all parties in our current systems.”

Schools are required to update their existing procedures to comply with the new regulations by Aug. 14. Whittle and Dahleh wrote that this “short timeframe” and the “timing of the regulations’ release” amid the COVID-19 pandemic are “regrettable,” and they “support the growing calls for an extension of the effective date.”