In Mishandling Sexual Assault Allegations Against Patrick Witt, Yale Failed Everyone

November 7, 2014

Former Yale University quarterback Patrick Witt took to The Boston Globe earlier this week to tell his story of how Yale’s secretive “informal complaint process” changed the course of his life after someone filed an accusation against him “that, if substantiated, would constitute a violation of university policy concerning sexual misconduct.”

According to Witt, Yale never formally charged him with any conduct violations or even told Witt specifically what he was alleged to have done; he was simply instructed to avoid his accuser. At no point in the process, as Witt describes it, was a good-faith attempt made to determine whether the accusation was true. Even Yale’s website says that informal complaints involve “[l]imited or no investigation” and “no adjudication.” The informal process was supposed to be confidential, but it obviously wasn’t. Witt claims his Rhodes scholar candidacy, his chance to be drafted into the NFL, and his post-graduation employment all ended when the news got out about the accusation.

When comparing Witt’s account alongside those of the Rhodes Trust and others, some details are unclear. Did Witt withdraw his Rhodes candidacy before the accusation against him became public? Did Witt eventually find out what he was supposed to have done, since he asserts his innocence? Slate asks some good questions about these and other details.

But FIRE’s concern is due process, and as far as we have seen, no one has challenged Witt’s claims about Yale’s inexcusable failure to provide him with even enough information to defend himself at the time—in the court of public opinion, at least, since he wouldn’t be allowed to defend himself in any formal setting.

Here’s how Witt described what happened to him:

While an undergraduate [at Yale], my ex-girlfriend filed an informal complaint against me with the then-newly-created University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct. The committee summoned me to appear and styled the meeting as a form of mediation. Its chairman, a professor with no prior experience handling dispute resolution, told me that I could have a faculty adviser present but no lawyer, and instructed me to avoid my accuser, who, by that point, I had neither seen nor spoken to in weeks. The committee imposed an “expectation of confidentiality” on me so as to prevent any form of “retaliation” against my accuser.

I would say more about what the accusation itself entailed if indeed I had such information. Under the informal complaint process, specific accusations are not disclosed to the accused, no fact-finding takes place, and no record is taken of the alleged misconduct. For the committee to issue an informal complaint, an accuser need only bring an accusation that, if substantiated, would constitute a violation of university policy concerning sexual misconduct. The informal “process” begins and ends at the point of accusation; the truth of the claim is immaterial.

When I demanded that fact-finding be done so that I could clear my name, I was told, “There’s nothing to clear your name of.” When I then requested that a formal complaint be lodged against me — a process that does involve investigation into the facts — I was told that such a course of action was impossible for me to initiate. At any time, however, my accuser retained the right to raise the complaint to a formal level. No matter, the Committee reassured me, the informal complaint did not constitute a disciplinary proceeding and nothing would be attached to my official record at Yale.

Yale is hardly alone when it comes to disregarding basic concepts of procedural fairness. In Witt’s article, he compared Harvard University’s new procedures for investigating and adjudicating allegations of sexual assault to those at Yale. As I wrote on The Torch in July, Harvard’s procedures are problematic for several reasons. Accused students cannot see all the evidence against them, are interviewed without the assistance of an attorney, and, of course, are judged under the low “preponderance of the evidence” standard. These elements seem designed to leave accused students unable to defend themselves against allegations, just as Witt says he was unable to defend himself at Yale. For more on the failures of Harvard’s sexual harassment policy, read this detailed analysis and critique from Harvard Law School Professor Janet Halley, released late last month.

Yale’s informal complaint system is even less rigorous. By failing to disclose the basic details of the accusations against Witt, Yale not only abandoned any sense of fundamental fairness, it also undermined public confidence in the integrity of the system as a whole. One would think that having a frank discussion about what a student supposedly did wrong in a sexual assault situation would be a priority for colleges. First, there is increasing pressure from the federal government for universities to provide sexual assault prevention and response training. Victims’ rights advocates, too, are praising recent efforts to provide training on what consent means, and what sexual assault is, even when such training is of dubious reliability. But how helpful can training to avoid certain situations be if those accused aren’t even told precisely what they are alleged to have done? How does simply telling a student to avoid his accuser help further the goal of educating students so that future sexual misconduct might be prevented? It doesn’t.

Just as nobody is happy with how colleges and universities are dealing with sexual misconduct cases generally, nobody should be happy with Yale’s alleged failure to give Witt the details of the accusation against him. This failure left Witt unable to clear his name if he is innocent of the nebulous charge against him, and free to hide behind the inadequacy and secrecy of the process if he is in fact guilty. Further, it allows Yale to dispose of cases that have become a problem for the university without dirtying its hands in an actual effort to find out the truth.

Schools:  Harvard University Yale University

Cases:  National: White House Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault Jeopardizes Student Due Process