College Campuses Have Become Hunting Grounds for Sexual Assault - Why Are Some Professors Enabling This?

Editor's Note: The Hunting Ground is a documentary calling out colleges such as Harvard Law for ignoring sexual assault on campus. After it was released, Harvard Law professors were outraged. But the new book by the documentary makers argues that college campuses often support the perpetrators rather than the victims of sexual assault.

The following is an excerpt from The Hunting Ground: The Inside Story of Sexual Assault on American College Campuses by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, now available from Hot Books.

"The Woman Who Stood Up to Harvard Law"

Shortly after we started investigating sexual assault on college campuses, we began hearing about problems at Harvard. We were put in touch with more than a half-dozen students who had been assaulted there, but none of them wanted to go on camera to talk about it. Some felt that they had worked so hard to get to Harvard, and that the school was such an important step toward their career, that they didn’t want to do anything that might trigger institutional backlash. Then we met Kamilah Willingham, a recent graduate of Harvard Law, who had been assaulted while there and was willing to speak on the record.

We were introduced to Kamilah by Colby Bruno, an attorney with the Boston-based Victim Rights Law Center, a nonprofit law center devoted solely to giving pro bono legal aid to victims of rape and sexual assault. Since the Center became a nonprofit in 2003, it has served hundreds of victims who’ve been sexually assaulted in college, including women like Kamilah who needed help navigating her school’s Title IX process.

Kamilah is intelligent and poised, with a quiet but powerful demeanor and a strong sense of integrity and justice, all reminiscent of a young Anita Hill. And just as in Hill’s case, the man Kamilah named as her perpetrator responded not only with denial but with a counterattack that included portraying Kamilah as a spurned woman. And just as Hill was found to be credible in her story of being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, so, too, was Kamilah found credible by three different bodies within Harvard Law—until a group of professors took it upon themselves to overturn the findings of her case, allow her perpetrator to return to Harvard, and then retaliate against her when she spoke out about her experience.

Unconscious and Incapable of Consent

By her third year at Harvard Law, Kamilah was garnering praise from her professors for her academic achievements and strong sense of social justice. Yet in the early morning hours of January 15, 2011, the foundation of Kamilah’s world at Harvard would crumble.

The evening began with Kamilah getting together with a friend (identified as “AB” to protect her privacy), and Brandon Winston, a Harvard Law student whom she considered to be a trusted male friend. They spent the next six hours drinking, and then Kamilah and AB fell asleep fully clothed at Kamilah’s apartment. Kamilah recounts awakening to find Winston on top of her attempting to have sex, and then seeing him fondle AB’s naked breast and admitting to Kamilah that he had disrobed her. The following day, Kamilah contacted the Harvard Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response for help. Then, on January 18, 2011, Kamilah and AB together reported their assaults to the Cambridge Police as well. In April, Kamilah, concerned for the safety of other students, filed a complaint with the Harvard Law School. The school appointed an independent fact finder (an attorney not employed by the school) to undertake a three-month investigation that included lengthy interviews of Kamilah, AB, and Winston.

On August 10, 2011, the fact finder released a report that found Kamilah’s account of the events “was credible” while Winston’s account was found to be “was not credible,” and that neither Kamilah nor AB had consented to Winston to engaging in sexual conduct with them. The fact finder also found that:

  • Winston’s “actions in undressing AB, touching her body, rubbing her crotch, and inserting his finger in AB’s vagina, when she was incapacitated by alcohol intoxication, were abusive and unreasonably invasive.”
  • Winston did not “offer a reasonable explanation for his statement that he put ‘a finger briefly in the v at most.’”
  • Winston “changed his account at least two times.”

On September 19, 2011, the Harvard Law Administrative Board conducted a daylong hearing on Kamilah’s complaint against Winston. After reviewing all of the evidence, the Board found that:

  • Winston “had initiated sexual conduct with the complainant [Willingham] while she was asleep or unconscious, and not capable of consenting.”
  • Winston “had initiated sexual contact with the friend while she was incapable of consenting.”

As a result, on September 21, 2011, the Board recommended the sanction of dismission (expulsion with option to apply for readmission) for Winston. Winston initiated an appeal, which was heard by the appeal hearing officer. After reviewing the case, the hearing officer upheld the Administrative Board’s findings. And then the Harvard Law faculty stepped in.

A Secretive and Flawed Process Lets a Perpetrator Back on Campus

The Harvard Law faculty reviewed the case, and even though they had not heard direct testimony from any of the parties involved, they overturned the findings and recommendations of Harvard Law’s investigative fact finder, Administrative Board, and appeal hearing officer, and allowed Winston to return to campus.

Kamilah was not notified of the faculty process or its decision until months after Winston was notified (a violation of Title IX guidelines), and after he was allowed to return to campus, where Kamilah had just begun a post-graduate teaching fellowship. Harvard Law refused to inform Kamilah who was present at the Harvard Law faculty vote or what the vote count was, or what the specific reason was for overturning the findings, other than to vaguely say that the “findings were not supported by substantial evidence.” When Kamilah requested a written or digital copy of the decision, the dean of Harvard Law refused to provide her with one.

Kamilah then filed a complaint against Harvard Law under Title IX with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which began to investigate the school. They found that the Harvard Law adjudication process, especially the faculty review process, was flawed and in violation of guidelines of Title IX law. In particular, the Department found that Harvard Law’s policies unfairly favored perpetrators.

In the December 2014 settlement agreement that followed between the Department of Education and Harvard Law, Harvard Law was required to reform its adjudication processes. The agreement detailed more than two-dozen specific requirements addressing issues of training, policy awareness, and procedures that adhere to Title IX. In its press release about the settlement, the Department chose to highlight one case that was particularly egregious. Although names were not provided, every indication is that the case was Kamilah’s—a clear rebuke of Harvard Law’s process and decision.

In the settlement agreement, OCR appeared to address the faculty directly when it said, “[N]o school or unit-based policy, procedure or process can reverse or alter a factual finding, remedy, or other decision made through the University’s Title IX Policy and Procedures.” To ensure Harvard Law followed its directives, the agreement also stipulated that OCR would monitor Harvard Law for a three-year period. It is clear that if the school had followed Title IX guidelines, the sanction against Winston would not have been overturned.

Meanwhile, the County of Middlesex had been moving forward with a criminal investigation. In September 2012, prosecutors from the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office presented charges to a Middlesex Superior Court grand jury against Winston for the assault of Kamilah and her friend. The grand jury indicted Winston on two felony counts of indecent assault and battery (the equivalent of felony sexual assault) against Kamilah’s friend. In March 2015, a jury convicted Winston of misdemeanor nonsexual assault for touching the breast of an incapacitated woman.

The victim advocate who worked with the prosecutor explained to Kamilah and her friend that the conviction was a victory, since juries rarely convict for anything at all in sexual assault cases, especially in cases where the assailant is a friend.

The statistics are not in the favor of victims regarding sexual assault: The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that only 32 percent of victims report their sexual assault, and that only three out of every 100 rapists will serve any prison time. Since only an exceedingly small percentage of sexual assault cases are ever prosecuted and even fewer result in any kind of conviction, this case was, in its own small way, a win for survivors everywhere.

A Shameful Media Attack

Three months later, Emily Yoffe, a columnist with a history of denying the truth about the prevalence of sexual assault and blaming sexual assault survivors, published a column in Slate that falsely claimed Kamilah’s account in The Hunting Ground was flawed. True to form, Yoffe’s piece smeared Kamilah. She presented the perpetrator’s one-sided version of events through his defense attorney, without doing even the most basic fact-checking. She failed to talk with the prosecutor or Kamilah, and ignored thousands of pages of documentation on the case, resulting in a piece that contained dozens of factual errors and misrepresentations.

She stated Kamilah waited three months after the assault to report; in fact, Kamilah reported within 48 hours. Yoffe also falsely claimed that neither Harvard nor the local prosecutor “found evidence to substantiate Willingham’s claims in The Hunting Ground.” The truth is that Harvard Law’s fact finder, Administrative Board, and appeal hearing officer, as well as Middlesex County’s prosecutor, and Middlesex County’s grand jury, all found conclusive evidence to support her claims. In her rush to defend Harvard Law, Yoffe failed to even mention that the same body of professors who overturned the findings in Kamilah’s case did so using a flawed process that was found by the Department of Education to be in violation of Title IX law.

In spite of the vehemence of Yoffe’s attack, she failed to disprove anything in Kamilah’s account of the events or in the film’s description of them. Her piece was so flawed that the online publication Jezebel ran a lengthy refutation of it, and Slate subsequently acknowledged multiple errors.

Protecting Reputation Rather Than Students

Shortly before the film’s November 2015 broadcast debut on CNN, 19 Harvard Law professors, stung by the film’s exposure of their involvement in a flawed process, issued a public statement slamming the film’s portrayal of Kamilah’s story. They defended their decision to allow Winston to return to school, failing to mention that the entities that actually spoke directly to the witnesses—the Administrative Board and appeal hearing officer—recommended his dismission. And, like Yoffe, they failed to mention that the process they participated in was a direct violation of the U.S. Department of Education guidelines on Title IX law.

As with Yoffe’s article, their piece was full of factual errors and misleading statements. The professors stated that, “[T]here was never any evidence that [the accused] used force,” even though nowhere in the film is the use of force against Kamilah or her friend stated or even suggested. This claim was not only inaccurate, it indicated these professors harbored antiquated perceptions of rape, such as the notion that for a rape to take place, force must be used.

In fact, force is not involved in most sexual assaults, especially those on campuses. According to one study, more than 50 percent of sexual assaults happen while the victim is incapacitated. By emphasizing force, these professors were in essence saying that unless force is involved, it is less likely that a sexual assault occurred, or if it did, it is not something that should not be taken as seriously as one involving force.

Another of the professors’ accusations was to question the “general sexual assault phenomenon” the film portrays. It’s deeply troubling that these Harvard Law professors, without any expertise or evidence to support their claim, engaged in challenging decades of well-founded studies that show that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in college.

Additionally, the professors argued that because Winston had not been found guilty of sexual assault in the criminal process, they were therefore vindicated for not finding him responsible in the Harvard Law process. This argument is particularly specious: The criminal and Harvard Law (civil) processes require two different standards of proof, a fact the professors deliberately failed to note. The criminal standard “beyond a reasonable doubt” is much higher than the civil standard, which is why OJ Simpson could be found not guilty in criminal court but would later go on to lose the civil lawsuit. The fact that law professors at the most esteemed law school in the country would conflate the two processes and intentionally mislead the public is reprehensible, and shows the lengths they are willing to go to defend their involvement in a flawed process.

Even more troubling, the professors failed to mention the epidemic of sexual assault at their institution, and exhibited no concern whatsoever for survivors. The real injustice at the heart of this issue is that these Harvard Law professors have been completely silent regarding the thousands of assaults that have happened on their campus for decades—assaults that have not been properly investigated or adjudicated. Not once in their statement did they acknowledge that nearly 30 percent of women are sexually assaulted while at Harvard, nor did they express any concern for these victims. Their silence contributes to the ongoing problem of sexual assault at Harvard and Harvard Law.

A Chilling Message, and a Monetary Motivation

Many members of the Harvard community let us know that the critical 19 Harvard Law professors were the minority. Harvard Law faculty member Diane Rosenfeld stated: “I fully support The Hunting Ground film, which is all about ending the silence of survivors. The signatories of the press release represent only a minority of the HLS faculty.”

Members of The Harassment/Assault Legal Team (HALT), a law student–run organization that advocates for victims of campus sexual harassment and assault, came out in strong support of the film as well, releasing the following statement:

The creators of The Hunting Ground gave survivors a chance to tell their story, which is a different task from courtroom advocacy, though no less noble. To some of our professors, it seems, sharing one’s story in a documentary, speaking outside of the legal arena, causes discomfort. But they don’t want her to tell her story publicly; at least not without all the facts they think need to be included, and certainly not after they’ve decided she was lying. Targeting the forum in which a survivor speaks is another way of silencing the survivor.

The 19 members of Harvard Law’s faculty would do well to learn from those students. Rather than acknowledging their involvement in Harvard Law’s unfair process, these faculty members instead tried to publicly discredit Kamilah, even going so far as to team up with the assailant’s defense attorney to build a biased website against her.

We agree with law professors and attorneys around the country who have publicly stated that the professors’ actions were an embarrassment to individuals of their stature and to Harvard Law, and that it was wrong for these professors who had adjudicated this case to later side with one of their former students against another in this way. We also believe these aggressive actions send a very chilling message to all current and future students at Harvard and Harvard Law: If you report a sexual assault, your professors may come after you publicly. What student would report a sexual assault if they know this might happen? Very few—and when fewer assaults are reported, rapists are free to continue to assault, and the school becomes a more dangerous place.

For several weeks after the film aired on CNN, Harvard faculty members continued their misinformation campaign, issuing statements and social media messages that discredited Kamilah and the film.

Why would these 19 professors, without the facts on their side, go after the film and their former student in such a public way? Other schools had been rightfully criticized, both in the film and by the media, and with the exception of FSU, none had responded so aggressively.

One explanation was suggested very early in the filmmaking process. Director Kirby Dick, when speaking with a national expert on college sexual assault, was told, “The Ivy League schools are the worst, because they are the most arrogant, and they think no one can tell them what to do.” (Fortunately, a number of the nation’s other elite schools, including Yale, Amherst, Wesleyan, and UCLA, among others, have shifted their approach, beginning to focus more on reforming their polices than protecting their reputations.)

Another reason, which has been articulated by faculty at several law schools including Harvard Law, was that many of these 19 professors had publicly disagreed with the Office of Civil Rights’ interpretation of Title IX law, taking the position that “the faculty believes they know better than OCR.” After Kamilah filed an OCR complaint, and OCR responded by issuing a public rebuke of the Harvard Law faculty process, these 19 professors, bitterly stung by both OCR’s critique and The Hunting Ground’s examination of their errors, decided to discredit Kamilah and the film as a way of striking back against OCR.

There is a third factor that may be at play as well, one that not surprisingly involves money. The film had been publicly available for nearly 10 months before people associated with Harvard Law began attacking Willingham’s account of her assault. These attacks began on November 11—just eight days after Harvard launched a $305 million fund-raising campaign. Harvard Law appears to be doing what The Hunting Ground shows universities have done for the past 50 years: discrediting survivors to protect their own reputations and funding sources, all at the expense of their students’ safety and well-being.

Through it all, Kamilah continues to be the embodiment of courage. She refuses to back down, even after some of her former professors came after her. She came forward to report the assault for the same reason most survivors do: to prevent their assailant from doing it again. Kamilah knows this isn’t just about her or her assailant; this is about justice and safety for millions of others. And she says she’s willing to continue that fight, no matter how difficult and painful it might be. This country is becoming a better place because of Kamilah and the other women and men around the country who are standing up to their institutions and demanding they protect their students.

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