March 19, 2015

Members of the Brown Community,

After a tough winter, I know everyone is looking forward to spring break. While I will take this opportunity to wish everyone a healthful and relaxing time, I feel compelled also to ask that, as a community, we reflect on an incident that has remained the subject of intense and divisive debate.

By now, most of you know the outlines. Two students alleged that they were served a date-rape drug at an unauthorized party given last October by a fraternity. One of the students alleged that she was later sexually assaulted by a student who was not a member of this fraternity. This has been an extremely difficult and emotional test for all involved. As is often the case in such situations, there are no winners. I applaud the courage of the two women who came forward. I also applaud the deep dedication of our students to making Brown’s campus as safe as possible. On Wednesday of this week, I sent a letter to the Sexual Assault Task Force that specifically addressed concerns raised in the recent incident. At the same time, I must express my disappointment that some conversations on this topic on campus and in social media have been fueled by incomplete information, rumor, and speculation, undermining a more thoughtful and productive discussion.

As you may know, Brown has obligations under Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972 that was an outgrowth of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Under Title IX, we—like all universities—must investigate and have a process to adjudicate allegations of sexual assault and gender-based violence and harassment, regardless of whether victims press criminal charges. Subsequent to the October incident and consistent with our responsibilities, Brown suspended the offending fraternity and launched an intensive investigation that resulted in three related but distinct student conduct cases, one for the fraternity, another for the alleged date-rape drugging, and a third for the alleged sexual assault. In the interests of transparency, but also mindful of strict federal privacy laws unrelated to Title IX, we communicated in previous letters how we attempted to sort out this complex case.

In my many conversations with students and others over the last few months, it has become clear that there is still a great deal of confusion about the facts and, more generally, how our student conduct process works. The case descriptions that have appeared in the traditional and social media have been necessarily incomplete and, at times, inaccurate or misleading. Candidly, it has been frustrating that confidentiality requirements make it impossible to complete or correct the record. However, a number of issues have been raised and it is important to this community that they be addressed.

Trust in the Process

Brown’s student conduct process is described in detail on our website and I encourage you to read it. The process in the October incident followed our guidelines to the letter and was comprehensive. Decisions in complex cases often require judgment calls about which reasonable and equally well-informed people can disagree. But, in the end, trust in the process must derive from trust in the students, faculty, and administrators who are decision-makers in student conduct cases. I have great confidence in the compassion, personal integrity, and seriousness of purpose that these individuals bring to their work.

Recent suggestions of a “thumb on the scale” of justice because one student, whose name has been circulated on campus although not in the press, is the son of a trustee[1] are completely false. There is no evidence whatsoever that anyone improperly influenced the investigation or adjudication process. I would not allow that to occur. The members of Brown’s governing body are aware of this and know that it would not be tolerated. Our administrators also understand it, and firewalls are in place to protect the integrity of the system.

What We Have Learned

We have, of course, learned important lessons throughout the process. For example, questions have been raised whether the medical laboratories retained to do drug testing were appropriate for complicated forensic work. These questions were taken into account in the final case determinations as outlined in a previous letter, and changes are being made for more reliable testing in the future.

We have also determined that it is better – fairer and less burdensome to our students – to place the burden of compiling evidence in sexual assault cases on external investigators. This change is already in effect. Some other changes were detailed in my January letter to the campus community.

Although there remains disagreement among members of the community about how the recent cases were handled, we can all agree that Brown must continue to find ways to make the campus safer. When allegations of sexual assault and gender-based violence occur we must ensure that our processes are fair and perceived as fair, even when complainants or the accused are dissatisfied with outcomes.

I believe we are on the right path to achieve these goals. The Sexual Assault Task Force, a committee of students, faculty, and administrators established in September, has been reviewing Brown’s policies and practices on sexual assault. Its final report, when completed, will include recommended revisions to the student code of conduct and improvements in the processes that are followed in the case of sexual assault. A new Title IX program officer will oversee sexual assault cases as well as enhanced training and education programs for students, faculty, and staff, with the primary goal of preventing sexual assault. Soon after spring break, students will be asked to complete a survey that will collect information on campus climate and their experiences with sexual assault, harassment, and gender-based violence. The University has made a clear commitment to provide the financial resources needed to implement these new initiatives and to ensure that all students may avail themselves of resources as needed.

My life’s work prior to coming to Brown focused on issues of health and well-being. As I said in a letter to the community last year, Brown is committed to being a leader in how we address the difficult issue of sexual assault. We clearly have work to do and it will take a great deal of caring, wisdom, and willingness to get it right. I ask for your support in doing so.

Sincerely,

Christina Paxson
President
Professor of Economics and Public Policy
Brown University