It would be very different if it happened today, but on the day before graduation for the Harvard Class of 2013, as Damilare Sonoiki spoke as the Male Orator chosen by his classmates, he had no idea what to expect would be coming his way.
90. On May 29, 2013, Damilare spoke before his graduating class as the male Harvard Orator, and on May 30, 2013, Damilare walked in Harvard’s graduation ceremony.
91. When Damilare participated in Harvard’s graduation ceremony, he had completed all of the requirements to graduate.
92. As of his graduation day on May 30, 2013, no charges had been issued against Damilare by the Ad Board, and he was a student in good standing.
93. Harvard impermissibly withheld Damilare’s degree.
On the one hand, Damilare was the recipient of the Annual Senior Award from The Association of Black Harvard Women, as part of its 15th Annual Tribute to Black Men, celebrating the leadership and contributions of black men at Harvard.
On the other hand, the Harvard campus was in the early stages of ramping up its attacks on “rape culture.”
26. A group of students formed “Our Harvard Can Do Better,” a campus group with the stated objective of “Dismantling Rape Culture at Harvard.”
27. Our Harvard Can Do Better urged all undergraduates to adopt a ballot measure that would deny basic rights and fairness to respondents in Title IX investigations. In urging a “yes” vote, the organization used the following banner:
Had this happened a few years later, there was a fairly good chance Damilare would have recognized, during the first notice that something bad was brewing, what was about to happen to him, how his life was about to be ripped to shreds as a sacrificial lamb to Harvard’s thirst to prove its dedication to believing the women with post-hoc regret for their consensual sex.
But back in 2013, there was still a naive belief that a young black man, an enormously respected student at Harvard, would walk in his graduation and, once the silliness was cleared up, be given his degree and a curt apology for having been hassled over nothing. After all, he completed everything required of him for his degree. There was no disciplinary proceeding pending against him on the day of his graduation. And most importantly, Damilare Sonoiki did nothing wrong. Surely Harvard would treat this young man fairly. Or so he thought.
The “complaints” against him took what today would be recognized as a fairly typical path. The first was from two years earlier, after an otherwise unremarkable sexual encounter.
48. In the days that followed, Ann* and Damilare communicated cordially via text.
49. Unbeknownst to Damilare, nine months later, on June 25, 2012, Ann went to Harvard’s Office of Sexual Prevention and Response and spoke with Sarah Rankin (“Rankin”), who was its director.
50. Ann claimed that she had “blacked out” at the party and regained consciousness while she was having sex with Damilare.
51. However, Ann told Rankin she did not want to file a Title IX claim against Damilare.
To Rankin, this was one shoe falling, awaiting the fall of another.
57. Despite living together, sharing a bed, and engaging in multiple sexual encounters, Betty claimed to Cindy that some of Betty’s initial sexual experiences with Damilare (in early June 2012) were nonconsensual. However, Betty admitted to continuing to share a bed with and having consensual sex with Damilare for the remainder of the summer.
No complaint was made to Rankin, but “Cindy” heard the story, to the extent it was a story.
64. On May 7, 2013, both Damilare and Cindy went to the Eliot House Formal but had separate dates. Their respective dates were just friends.
65. As the event ended, Damilare and Cindy spotted each other, socialized, and kissed.
They had sex afterward, and Cindy went to the Harvard Health service the next morning for emergency contraceptive.
68. While Cindy was at the health services center, a doctor at the center called Rankin, claiming that Cindy may have been sexually assaulted. Rankin spoke with Cindy, and they planned to meet the next day.
Initially, Cindy had no interest in filing a complaint, but then Rankin told her that she wasn’t the first person to bring Damilare to her attention, referencing talk with Ann. Rankin then pressured Cindy to file a formal complaint, which spiraled out of control as she pushed Betty and Ann to cooperate as well, bootstrapping each complaint to create a sense of seriousness where it didn’t exist.
87. Cindy also stated that she “didn’t think much about” her experience with Damilare until she learned about other accusations from Rankin.
Rankin got Jay Ellison, the then-Associate Dean of Harvard College and Ad Board Secretary, to use his office to pressure Cindy to file a complaint against Damilare, and eventually she did, even though there were no formal disciplinary proceedings until after graduation day.
89. But for Rankin pressuring and organizing Ann, Betty, and Cindy to file formal Title IX complaints against Damilare, and but for Dean Ellison pressuring Cindy to file a formal Title IX complaint against Damilare, none would have been filed against him.
Suit has been filed, not under Title IX as the statute of limitations has elapsed, but under state law breach of contract. At the time, there wasn’t even a pretense of due process for Damilare, who expected to be treated fairly because he was an unrepresented kid who naively thought Harvard wouldn’t burn him.
95. Harvard’s sexual misconduct policy was vague, overbroad, and inherently unfair, and lacked basic definitions necessary for students to understand the elements of a policy violation.
96. By failing to adopt an intelligible and fair sexual misconduct policy, and by annunciating an adjudication process across a series of dense, convoluted, and, at points, seemingly contradictory, documents, Harvard employed a sexual misconduct adjudication process that no student, or even attorney, could hope to understand.
Indeed, the burden of proof in use at the time was “’sufficiently persuaded,’ whatever that might mean, without a presumption of innocence.” Yet, this was good enough for Harvard to take what should have been a hugely promising future and sacrifice it to prove its dedication to eliminating rape culture and protecting its co-eds.
As for Damilare Sonoiki, his four years at Harvard didn’t work out as he planned and has only gotten worse since. The promise wasn’t just lost, but stolen from him, and now he’s trying to get what’s left of it back.
*The names for the women involved are, as usual, pseudonyms.