Patrick Witt and Yale’s Disastrous Failure

Patrick Witt.jpg

Richard Perez-Pena’s New York Times article on Patrick Witt consisted of little more than dubious inferences and negative insinuations. But the story did, unequivocally, feature one revelation: someone (presumably either in the accuser’s entourage or a Yale administrator) violated Yale’s procedures by leaking existence of the “informal” complaint against Witt–with the motive of torpedoing his Rhodes candidacy. In combination with the Times‘ irresponsible reporting, this violation of procedures caused enormous damage to Witt’s reputation. Yet there’s no sign that Yale has undertaken an investigation as to whether a university employee violated Yale procedures and Witt’s due process rights, and an e-mail to Yale’s P.R. office asking if such an inquiry was planned went unanswered.

In a thoughtful essay,’s Jemele Hill examined the fallout: “Real due process in this case was destroyed by whomever shared the story to the Rhodes Trust and The New York Times,” and as a result “Witt’s reputation has been irreparably damaged.” Hill, one of a handful of reporters or columnists to issue a genuine, public apology for having rushed to judgment about the Duke lacrosse case, condemned both Rhodes and Yale for “hiding behind confidentiality and an unwillingness to comment,” leaving Witt with no avenue for regaining his reputation. Hill concluded that “with so much confusion between the reported timeline and Witt’s version, either the Rhodes Trust or Yale is obligated to clear up whether Witt’s scholarship campaign ended at his request or theirs.”

Hill’s hope that the Rhodes Trust will bring transparency to what happened (which would include revealing the improper leaker’s identity) seems far-fetched. But Yale’s silence is harder to excuse. Even if (as is likely, given campus politics) the Yale administration is afraid to be perceived as caring about Patrick Witt, the university’s silence about such a flagrant violation of the school’s sexual harassment and assault policy stands in stark contrast to the administration’s loquaciousness about the policy in general. Ironically, on Tuesday, Yale president Richard Levin penned a university-wide e-mail hailing Deputy Provost Stephanie Spangler for producing a “comprehensive, semi-annual report of complaints of sexual misconduct and related remedial actions.”

Politics, Procedures, Pretenses, But No Due Process?

Levin noted that the Yale administration “thought it was important to provide greater transparency about the entire array of concerns–including verbal harassment and sexual assault–to motivate the Yale community to improve our campus climate.” After some standard boilerplate (“let us join together unified in a common commitment to proper behavior and mutual respect”; “there is no place for any form of sexual misconduct on our campus”), Levin got to the heart of the matter: “The new procedures and services we have put in place are necessary, but they are not sufficient.”

The Witt affair, of course, exposed to the world the shortcomings of those procedures even as they currently exist. Yale’s “informal complaint” procedure ensures limited or no investigation and allows the process to begin on the basis of an accuser’s “worry.” The university’s formal complaint procedure, meanwhile, promises the accuser “considerable control . . . as the process unfolds,” culminating in judgment by an unfair, preponderance-of-evidence standard.

Yet according to Levin, these procedures, wildly tilted in favor of the accuser, are “not sufficient.”

In her report, Spangler spoke much more bluntly about the “informal” complaint process from which the improper leak sprung. The deputy provost dropped any pretense that Yale seeks to provide due process or find the truth. Instead, she affirmed that the informal complaint procedure’s “goal is to achieve a resolution that is desired by the [accuser],” so that accusers can “regain their sense of wellbeing,” even though the process provides no mechanism for determining whether the accuser is telling the truth. In fact, the process seems all but designed to ensure that the truth won’t be discovered, especially if the accuser is less than truthful. According to Spangler, Yale wants the informal complaint procedure to give the accuser “choice of and control over the process.” This goal is incompatible with providing due process to the accused.

Sexual Assault Statistics

Spangler’s report details thirteen allegations of sexual assault by Yale undergraduates from 1 July through 31 December 2011. Since Yale currently enrolls 5322 undergraduates, the report suggests that 0.24 percent of Yale students reported a sexual assault over this six-month period.

The FBI crime statistics for the last six months of 2011 aren’t currently available. But during the period from 1 January through 30 June 2011, New Haven, with a population of around 130,000, experienced 25 reports of sexual assault. That means 0.02 percent of New Haven residents reported a sexual assault over this six-month period. Making the not unreasonable assumption that instances of sexual assault in New Haven were about the same in the second half of 2011, per capita reports of sexual assault on the Yale campus were 10-12 times greater than those in New Haven.

How, possibly, could Yale have a rate of sexual assault many times greater than the city the FBI has billed the fourth most dangerous city in the country? Spangler provides an answer, buried in a footnote on the last page of her document: “This report uses a more expansive definition of sexual assault” than required under federal law (or that any police department anywhere in the country employs). Moreover, none of the 13 Yale students who alleged sexual assault even filed a formal complaint at Yale–much less reported the alleged crime to police. As a result, no medical or criminal investigations of their cases ever occurred. When the allegations remained confidential, this didn’t pose much of a problem for the accused. For Witt, obviously, the outcome was much different.

Tricky Terminology in the Times

When Times readers learned from Richard Perez-Pena that “a fellow student had accused Witt of sexual assault,” how many of them realized that Yale was actually using an “expansive definition” of this otherwise commonly-understood term? How many readers further realized that Yale had designed the procedure about which Perez-Pena wrote so as to give Witt’s accuser “control over the process,” including limited or no investigation? And how many readers could have dreamed that the procedures guiding the allegation against Witt have produced the extraordinary claim that sexual assault is far, far more common on this Ivy League campus than in the fourth most dangerous city in the country? And since the Times went to print without ever speaking to Witt or (it seems) anyone sympathetic to him in the Athletic Department, didn’t the paper at the very least have an obligation to provide the context that would explain the highly unusual procedures and definitions that Yale features?

While President Levin and Deputy Provost Spangler are cowards on the issue of due process, there’s no reason to believe that they share the indifference of a figure like the Times‘ Perez-Pena or the malevolence of someone like Poynter source/seminar instructor Wendy Murphy. Rather, they appear to have embraced a thesis common among both the professoriate and “victims’ rights” groups: that the way to persuade more real victims of sexual assault to report the crime is to jerry-rig procedures to make it more likely that those who do file reports will prevail, whether in court or before campus “judicial” tribunals. This mindset, however well-intentioned, contradicts any reasonable definition of due process and presumption of innocence. That President Levin seems prepared to further abandon these bedrock American principles, as he implied he will do in his campus-wide e-mail, is a sad commentary on the state of higher education.



  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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25 thoughts on “Patrick Witt and Yale’s Disastrous Failure

  1. There is so much wrong in the Patrick Witt case the highlighting one small part of it seems questionable. Yet the notion that these proceedings are educational deserves to be held up to ridicule. Susan Kruth makes a good point at FIRE: “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.”

  2. It is profoundly stupid to imply that Yale’s policy is unreasonable because more assaults are reported per capita at Yale than in New Haven. A much more logical conclusion is that both are drastically underreported, at Yale somewhat less so. One in four college women are sexually assaulted ( implying that from July 1-December 31, more than 300 assaults occurred on Yale campus (5322 undergraduates*1/2 women*6 months/4 years you spend in college)–of which 13 were reported–roughly 4%. Yeah, when 96% of college rapists walk free, it’s really the accused who need more protection here. Terrible injustices will be done regardless of what standard you choose, but Mr. Witt is not the one we should be weeping for here; it’s the many, many, many victims who get no justice at all.

  3. One wonders how the process would play out if a student accused President Levin of sexual harassment and leaked it to the media.
    I suspect not quite the same way.

  4. The first comment published in this thread was from Harvey Silverglate, the author of a book about this very travesty on campuses around the country. As an alumnus I find this incident deeply troubling. As an 18 year old male looking for a college today, I would select the only remaining single sex school standing: Wabash. At least one one be free from the ridiculous policies, administrators, and feminists all looking to railroad some would be predator who exists largely in their imaginations. Shades of Cotton Mather and the Puritan thought police.

  5. These policies aren’t limited to Yale but rather are part of a larger Obama administration initiative. There have been articles for the past year or so indicating their desire to “capture” more sexual assaults on campuses by changing definitions and making it “easier” to punish offenders. It’s for the womyns, of course.

  6. So the new DoJ standard (as mentioned in the chronicle of higher learning by Christina Hoff Sommers) couldn’t even be met. That can be the only reason that the story was then leaked to the NY Times. Witt should be in litigation with Yale, and the question I have is whether or not the Witt is a public enough figure that suing the NY Times for libel is out of the question.

  7. Witt was accused of sexual assault in a major newspaper. He didn’t sue for libel. That makes me think there’s something to this.

  8. One wonders how the process would play out if a student accused President Levin of sexual harassment and leaked it to the media.
    I suspect not quite the same way.

  9. Taking an ironical approach to the statistics of sexual crime at Yale:
    I am sure that the Admissions Department will hide the fact that women who attend Yale are 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted while on campus than out and about in New Haven.
    Why hasn’t the Yale President done something about this massively uncontrollable criminal environment on the Yale campus?
    I recommend that all victims of sexual assault on campus file a class-action lawsuit against Yale, President Levin, and Deputy Provost Spangler for negligence in their duty to protect.

  10. Some might think that this was part of a much bigger effort to eliminate sports at Yale. There is discussion in the alumni magazine about the under-enrollment of athletes in the past few years. If you discredit the place as one where athletes are bad people, then athletes will not want to go there.

  11. This story has been told in many TV episodes, seemingly each the same. Yale… life imitating art (or what many citizens take for art) or Duke.

  12. Does this policy apply to faculty? Can an undergrad or graduate student charge a member of the faculty with sexual harassment under these same policies?

  13. In fairness to Yale, they are giving male students adequate warning that Yale is a hostile environment to men. Any prospective male student that voluntarily chooses Yale, by default, acknowledges the risk of such an occurrence and should accept the destructive outcome as an appropriate element of their experience at Yale.

  14. First, it seems it would be best if Yale dropped the silly idea of an informal complaint. You either make a complaint–or you don’t–the rest is gossip and inuendo.
    Second, what has been defined as sexual assault is really harassment, so they should call it what it is. And as harassment, it explains the idea of an “informal” complaint–the gossip and inuendo that it is.
    The very idea that someone alleges assault, and doesn’t file a criminal complaint should be dispositive of the incident in question.
    And lastly, it is possible that Yale could experience a high rate of sexual assault, as compared to New Haven, as statistical outliers are prone to occur in small samples of the population at large. Seeing as Yale uses their unique definition of sexual assault, and while the such definition explains the 10-12x variance, such comparisons are meaningless.

  15. Yale’s procedures (along with similar ones elsewhere) will ultimately devalue all claims of sexual assault. They will cause a weakening of all such claims and ultimately a reaction that will allow real sexual assaults to go unpunished. The obvious political subtext in Yale’s policy is (for now) having its day; it is very unfortunate that young mens’ lives will be negatively affected along the way.

  16. Witt should sue Yale for defamation of character and denial of his Constitutional rights. They are responsible for their employee’s actions. I know Yale is a private institution, but they do receive federal money. $500 million sounds about right. Actually, 10% of all Yale’s assets would be even better.

  17. Until employers deny the automatic validity of credentials and reevaluate hiring graduates from schools with policies like these.
    Until doners refuse to donate to schools with policies like these.
    It won’t change.
    And even then only after the various governments supporting them stop shoveling vast replacement dollars into schools with policies like these.
    Since the lunatics have taken over the asylum and the credentialing of the asylum and the of the asylum oversight and the large outside organs that might bring light into this darkness…

  18. So-called “Liberals” like Clinton “Mr. Sexual Harassment” crony Levin, and his odious tool Spangler, always assume that the unethical policies they see fit to impose on others will never apply to them. What a great way to inspire student loyalty to good ole Yale! Wouldn’t it be fun to see what happens if Levin or Spangler were accused by someone “worried” about sexual harassment by these two phonies?

  19. One wonders, as these stories keep coming out, where the governing board of Yale is hiding. Do none of the Board members understand anything about their fiduciary duty to the institution? HARVEY SILVERGLATE

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