Graduating students at Harvard University donned red tape on their caps and gowns during commencement exercises Thursday in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a show of protest against the school's sexual assault policies.
In what was the latest in student activism around the issue, students were encouraged to place red duct tape on the tops of mortar boards during commencement by Our Harvard Can Do Better, an undergraduate student group advocating for better sexual violence policies.
The red tape represents a show of solidarity with survivors of sexual violence and with graduates who did the same during their commencement at Columbia and Brown universities. It was originally used by Columbia students in 1999 to protest the "red tape" bureaucracy survivors faced reporting assaults.
Harvard faced increased scrutiny during the 2013-14 academic year for alleged failures handling sexual violence on campus. It was also accused of discriminating against an accomplished professor who supported sexual assault survivors. These controversies became public as Harvard tried to move on from problems with a gender gap at the business school ahead of a $6.5 billion capital campaign.
Our Harvard was instrumental in filing a federal complaint that led to the U.S. Department of Education opening an investigation into the prestigious university. The graduation demonstration also carried the endorsement of Harvard Students Demand Respect, a graduate student coalition working on the same issue, and the student groups The Diversity Report, the "I, Too, Am Harvard" campaign and Divest Harvard.
"I have to watch my friends' rapist walk across the stage, that's something we have to fix," said Michelle Maziar, cofounder of HarvardSDR and a former Graduate School of Education student. "I hope this time next year we have a lot fewer rapists walking across the stage."
Despite their criticisms, HarvardSDR organizers said they remain optimistic after meeting in recent weeks with administrators like the university Title IX director and members of a task force on the issue. During a phone interview Thursday, they described communication with Harvard administrators as "positive" and "earnest."
"The task is to transfer those good intentions into good policy," said HarvardSDR co-founder and Kennedy School student Rory Gerberg.
The red tape demonstration also comes as Harvard alumni have begun getting more involved around the issue of sexual assault. In addition to coordinating with other alumni around the country, the Harvard Women alumnae network has set up a website to collect stories from survivors.
Harvard has also set up its own site to allow survivors to confidentially submit stories and comments. Alicia Oeser, the newly appointed director of Harvard's Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, reads each of the messages.
"The task force offers this second option to ensure that they are not missing the important voices of individuals who wish to participate in this conversation without being identified," Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal said. "We recognize information sharing, when authorized by a victim, may increase the effectiveness of service delivery, victim safety, and offender accountability. Submissions received confidentially will be collected and presented to the larger task force without identifying information."
The university has taken other steps as well, including adding another graduate student to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences committee on Sexual Misconduct Policies and Procedures.
"Clearly they are hearing this call for greater student representation," Gerberg said.