Whenever the subject of anonymity arises, poor Publius gets dragged out as proof of its efficacy and tradition. It’s a strong point, but for the one distinguishing detail of Publius as author of the Federalist Papers: that the writings were not dependent on the credibility of the writer, but on the writer’s arguments.
If Publius’ arguments required one to rely on personal experience or the credibility of the writer, then anonymity would have rendered Publius’ words meaningless, for anonymity may protect the writer’s identity, but simultaneously means that anything dependent on the writer’s identity is inherently incredible. Welcome to Harvard.
Harvard’s Title IX Office debuted an anonymous online reporting form on Monday designed to help students report sexual misconduct with greater comfort and logistical ease.
No doubt this will facilitate, both in terms of comfort and ease, the “reporting” of allegations of Title IX sexual “misconduct,” whatever that may be. Who wouldn’t prefer not to put themselves in the unpleasant position of having to be involved, questioned, possibly challenged, for accusing others of offenses? And that, by Harvard standards, is the predominant concern.
“Our hope is that those persons who feel comfortable and confident reaching out to our system of Title IX coordinators will continue to do so,” [University Title IX Officer Nicole M.] Merhill said. “Our goal is to capture the population of individuals who don’t yet feel comfortable and confident reaching out to Title IX.”
Feelings of comfort are taken very seriously at Harvard. But accusations, unlike Publius’ arguments, are inherently dependent on experience and credibility of their maker. Assuming the best of the anonymous accusers, what becomes of these allegations?
Princeton, for example, has an anonymous phone reporting system, which it says it is not confidential and that reports may result in investigations. Northeastern University allows for anonymous reporting, but acknowledges that resulting investigations are necessarily inhibited by anonymity. Cornell, Dartmouth, and Reed College also allow individuals to make anonymous reports.
If the purpose of anonymous accusations is cathartic, a mechanism whereby women who believe themselves to be victims can vent their pain and, afterward, feel relieved, then the availability of this relief valve would make some sense. But as other schools who have opened the anonymous door have come to recognize, you can have anonymity, but there is nothing to be done with it. That doesn’t appear to be Harvard’s end game.
Sanika S. Mahajan ’21, an organizer for anti-sexual assault advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better, wrote in an email that she supports the idea of anonymity.
“The initiative to kickstart an online anonymous reporting system is an exciting step forward for the fight against sexual violence and misconduct on campus,” she wrote. “The implementation of this system could lower barriers to reporting for many survivors, and they are more likely to report sooner.”
Mahajan added that she hopes to see transparency around how the administration handles the anonymous reports.
Granted, little is expected of the reasoning abilities of Mahajan ’21, and little is shown. When some student levels an accusation of rape against a named person, it provides no information on what conduct occurred and no basis to believe, unless of course one is of the “believe the accuser” ilk. While that might well be Mahajan’s view, courts tend to frown on such inquisitorial perspective, particularly when it’s not even believe the women, but believe the unknown accuser. No need to talk about due process, as anonymous accusations aren’t susceptible to such niceties.
But this assumes the absolute best of such a system. What of those who would use the system for revenge, for a joke, for a transitory lapse of rationality? The only transparency possible if there is any rational application of an anon reporting system is “delete all.”
What does Harvard plan to do with these anonymous complaints?
Merhill also said that the Title IX Office’s rules and best practices will not change with the new reporting form. The anonymous reports will be kept apart from the Office of Dispute Resolution, which handles Title IX investigations. Filling out an anonymous report will not automatically trigger a formal ODR complaint.
“Not automatically” is good, but doesn’t mean they won’t trigger a formal complaint. It doesn’t mean much of anything. Harvard has a particularly sordid history in its handling of accusations of sexual misconduct, enough so that four feminist lawprofs felt compelled to write about its failings, following the Boston Globe statement signed by 28 Harvard law professors who, in 2014, called the school’s procedures “overwhelmingly stacked against the accused.”
Lest anyone believe so strongly that supporting the “survivor” makes this new anon reporting regime worth the price of credibility and due process, it would be worth considering that just because it might facilitate the reporting by “victims” too uncomfortable to accuse under their own name, it will also serve as a means for others, for people who want to swing the sword against them, to submit anonymous accusations.
Too woke a prof? J’accuse. Too hard a test? J’accuse. She wouldn’t put out? Yes, even she might be the recipient of an accusation. That’s the nature of anonymity, that it’s rife for the possibility of mischief, although mischief is far too squishy a word to capture the damage that could be done to to the undeserving for malevolent purposes.
Even the notion that anon reporting will construct a “shitty Harvard men” list, so that when an accuser steps forward under their real name, there will be a history of accusations against a person to be dredged up and bolster their accusation, presents terrible dangers. A high-profile person may well engender the enmity of others. One angry woman may well get a few friends to join her in constructing a false history so that when she goes public, it will provide support for her accusation. There are too many possibilities to mention, but they will be readily available and, as experience tells us, will happen.
So what to do with this anonymous complaint system, since the hope is that it will be transparent? Harvard’s approach offers a great many possibilities, ranging from bad to disastrously bad. Publius would not be pleased.