Here’s what you need to take away from this New York Times article: the sexual-assault allegation against Patrick Witt was serious enough for the Rhodes Committee to suspend his candidacy over it, but not serious enough to merit a “formal complaint” within Yale’s internal discipline system.
I don’t need to point out that this bodes really badly for Yale in the Title IX lawsuit. I don’t mean this in the sense of “Yale clearly does have a problem with sexual assault if its star quarterback is going around raping women!”; I mean that the case shows that Yale’s internal complaint process is badly broken. If Witt’s accuser thought what had happened to her was serious enough that Witt should be punished for it, she felt dissuaded (for whatever reason) from going through the only process that might have had disciplinary consequences. Maybe she felt too much social pressure, maybe she saw too much red tape — it doesn’t really matter. No system in which someone feels she’s the victim of a consequential act, but ends up going through an inconsequential process, is a working system.
Since many people are starting from the assumption that Witt’s accuser must have been “out to get him,” I feel obligated to point out that this should worry them too. If the formal complaint system is so impossible that even someone whose sole goal is punitive ends up going through a process with no disciplinary conserquences — and which, as a matter of Yale policy, wasn’t supposed to get reported to the Rhodes committee — why should we think a student whose motives aren’t vindictive is any more likely to use it?
But let’s say Witt’s accuser chose the informal process for a reason — she didn’t think anything was serious enough that Witt should actually be disciplined for it, and just wanted to have official acknowledgement and closure of something she was still trying to define for herself. If that’s the case, Yale comes out looking even worse. Because that means someone with knowledge of the complaint told the Rhodes Committee about it without the consent of either Yale or the person who made the complaint to begin with. That’s a huge failure of information security. In this case, it happened to make trouble for Witt, the defendant. But most of the time, the person being accused of sexual assault isn’t a Rhodes candidate, and when people start talking about the allegations it’s the accuser who gets put under the microscope. If those who knew about the complaint couldn’t be trusted enough to keep it under wraps — if they ensured that the defendant would get punished when the accuser didn’t want him to be – why on earth would any future victim of sexual assault trust the system? Why would she tell anyone more than a few close friends she’d know would trust her — or anyone at all?
I want to point out, by the way, that the Rhodes Committee’s actions were seriously praiseworthy. They didn’t do what people or institutions overwhelmingly tend to do in this case — and what I’m sure the Times-reading public is about to do in the wake of this story: they didn’t immediately respond to news of the allegation by litigating the credibility of the accuser, or by dismissing the allegation out of hand just because they couldn’t know for sure. Instead, they suspended the application and gave Yale a week to decide whether or not to override that decision. (Witt and Yale sidestepped the question when Witt decided to play in the Harvard-Yale football game rather than attend Rhodes finalist interviews.) They acted provisionally, based on the evidence they had: there was some reason to believe that Witt might not have the strength of character they had thought, and this might be reason enough to give the scholarship to one of the other finalists they were considering. But they let Yale, the organization that actually had the information, make the final assessment as to whether Witt should be disqualified because of this, or whether it wasn’t important enough to torpedo his application. It’s sad that I have to celebrate this — hey, guys, look! Someone heard about a sexual-assault case and thought, Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t make a judgment here, and maybe I should listen to the people who know more about what happened instead! – but there you have it.