By: Yitzhak Kornbluth  | 

Despite YU’s Promises Regarding Sexual Assault, More Work May Be Needed

As readers of The Commentator know, YU is still dealing with the fallout of a report of sexual assault involving students. A few weeks ago, YU announced that it would implement a “restructured” Title IX office, among other more minute changes.  While I applaud YU’s action to try to resolve this, there are still significant concerns as to whether this response is sufficient to address the underlying cause(s) of YU’s mishandling of that entire episode. In order to explain my concerns, I would like to present four possibilities as to what problem was underlying YU’s mishandling of this case.

It may be that this was simply a matter of manpower; every individual in the Title IX office had other roles at the university, and may simply have been too busy to give the case the attention it deserved. Alternatively, YU may have lacked anyone with sufficient relevant experience. If either of these factors is in fact the cause, the proposed restructuring will, in fact, fix the problem.

A third possibility is that this was due to administrators having priorities that were inappropriate for the task before them. Jeff Lax — a radio show host who discussed the matter — pointed out that all individuals in the office have other roles in the university and this may have created a conflict of interest. However, such issues can be far more subtle than such an overt conflict; any time a department of YU acts in accordance with priorities and values different than those of YU itself, this too is another form of the same fundamental problem. Indeed, YU’s statement published Aug. 26 lacks any reference to YU’s Core Torah values (so prevalent in other contexts, and clearly relevant to this case), suggesting that the priorities of the Title IX administrators were not properly aligned with those of YU.

The restructuring will thus fix the obvious form of conflict of interest by ensuring that every Title IX officer has no other responsibilities, but not be effective against the more subtle form. Furthermore, YU’s status as a prominent Jewish organization means that such a mismatch of values can cause great harm even outside Title IX if important matters are dealt with by departments that do not share our values.his will not at all be solved by YU’s current approach.

The last possibility, and the least complimentary to YU, is that this was simple laziness on the part of the administration. According to this theory, various individuals in the administration performed a cursory investigation because it was easier, refused to reopen the case (despite having failed the first time to consider the “rape kit” test the claimant underwent) because that would constitute additional work for them, and did not respond to Jeff Lax’s first attempt to contact them because they couldn’t be bothered. If this is the cause, a restructuring will likely accomplish nothing at all.

This then raises the question: Can we determine whether the latter two factors are in fact present, thus demanding further work on YU’s part? I believe such determination is possible, as each of these factors is driven in large part by the cultures of the departments in question, and is not unique to cases of sexual assault. Thus, a comprehensive survey of the YU community (including students, faculty, alumni and staff) regarding the everyday functioning of YU’s administration can determine whether such misplaced priorities and/or unprofessionalism are in fact part of the administrative culture. If they are, then they were presumably also factors at play in this case of responding to a report of sexual assault. 

If the survey demonstrates that the administration and administrative staff of YU, other than in this one case, reliably considers all relevant factors in a decision, is responsive to inquiries and complaints and demonstrates a commitment to their professional duties, it may be assumed that this incident was unique to the Title IX system and the reorganization will therefore suffice. If it is found that each department demonstrates professionalism with regard to the primary purpose of that department but is lax or lackadaisical regarding other matters that may fall under their purview, we may assume that misplaced priorities are a significant factor that needs to be addressed. Likewise, if departments make decisions that consider only matters pertaining to their own department and not the needs of YU as a whole, this too suggests a mismatch with YU’s values. Finally, if administrators or staff regularly show a lack of professionalism or responsiveness even in the primary role of their department, YU must take steps to rectify such a tendency toward unprofessionalism in order to prevent it from having further detrimental effects, whether in further cases of sexual assault or other serious matters. (I will leave it to others, perhaps the editorial staff of The Commentator, to determine how best to perform the necessary survey.)

Once any problems have been identified, YU must then take action to solve them. This will likely not be easy; problems such as misplaced priorities and unprofessionalism often arise in a manner that creates significant resistance to reform, and this resistance will make it very tempting to attempt a superficial approach that does not address the core issues.  While I have some thoughts on how to overcome such resistance, they are beyond the scope of this article. I will, however, provide some general guidelines as to how to ensure that the approach taken to fix these issues is an effective one and not superficial:

First, any approach taken must ensure that failures in these matters are met with real consequences. Such consequences need not be large in most cases; for example, an apology for wrongdoing is a minor enough consequence to be usable even when the failure was accidental in nature, but nevertheless demonstrates a commitment both to professionalism and to the Torah values of the university. Second, any approach must apply to both the top-level administration and the lower-level employees who make small everyday decisions. If it applies only to the top level, problems in everyday decisions will still cause issues on a regular basis, while if it applies only to the lower level, it will be seen as hypocritical and create unnecessary resistance.  Third, if an authority on YU’s values is needed to align all departments, YU’s president can take this role.

Last and most importantly, there must be means to determine whether the solution is actually effective. One way to do this is with further surveys, some time after implementing a solution, to determine whether it has had its intended effect or not.  (Such a survey could also measure if the effectiveness of a solution varies by department.) Another, more promising approach to evaluating the effectiveness of a solution is to create a system by which those who encounter such problems can report a complaint, thereby providing YU with guidance as to whether the solution is effective, and helping detect any failures that need to be addressed as described in the solution. Such reporting must not show the failures that were seen in this report of sexual assault; on the contrary, the complainant must be guaranteed full information regarding all findings and resulting decisions, and must have the ability to appeal if there is sufficient basis to do so. By implementing a solution and assessing its effectiveness, the solution can be adjusted as necessary until all such problems have been eliminated, allowing Yeshiva University to be truly worthy of its status as the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy.

Photo Caption: NA

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons