It was 1969 when the first class of female freshman entered Yale: confident, optimistic, full of womanly pride. In the beginning, there were just 576 of them—among thousands of men. Dubbed "superwomen" by the media (and called "freaks" by male classmates), they were advised, via the incoming freshman handbook, to treat Yale "like you would a good woman"— "cursing her ... but congratulating yourself in your possession of her." Four years later, as those early female scholars prepared to commence, one woman described it like this: "Yale is a fantastic place as far as academics and education are concerned," she told The New York Times. "But social attitudes are really no different than on the outside."
She was talking about chauvinism, of course. And from male peers who belittled them during class (and professors who groped and harassed when it was through), there was much of it at Yale. So crippling was the sexual climate in those early days that, in 1977, five female students got together and sued the university, alleging under Title IX—which bars discrimination based on gender—that repeated "quid pro quo" sexual harassment by male professors was denying women the right to an equal education. As one faculty member barked to a reporter at the time, "If women students aren't smart enough to know how to outwit some obnoxious professor, they shouldn't be here in the first place." It was the first time Title IX had been used to bring sexual-harassment charges against an educational institution.
Yale celebrated the 40th anniversary of its first class of female undergraduates just over a year ago, and the Yale of today has no doubt moved far from its days of all-male social clubs and female curfews. Women are now the majority of students on Yale's campus, the university is home to an active Women's Center and a popular feminist magazine, and on a recent rainy Friday, a giant pink billboard advertised a special weekend showing of The Vagina Monologues. But students say there remains a deep culture of silence at the three-centuries-old institution, where sexual harassment and assault is tolerated and ignored. "In my immediate circle of friends, I know six or seven women who've been raped," says Alexandra Brodsky, a junior. "I think it's hard to go through Yale and not have a roommate, a friend, a girlfriend, experience some sort of serious harassment."
On Thursday, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, a part of the Department of Education, announced it would open an investigation into allegations against Yale by 16 students, including Brodsky. In a 30-page complaint, the 12 women and four men (a number of them recent alumni) charge the university with "failing to eliminate a hostile sexual environment," thus violating Title IX. Among the examples of such hostility: a 2007 petition by 150 students in the medical school, charging sexual harassment among professors and peers, including groping, intimidation, verbal abuse, and rape (and allegations that the university didn't sufficiently respond); the circulation of a " Preseason Scouting Report" email ranking 53 freshmen by name, hometown, college residence—and "how many beers it would take to have sex with them"; and a fraternity pledge prank—the same frat that once claimed George W. Bush as president—that involved dozens of men gathered on Yale's Old Campus, where most of the school's freshmen live, jeering: " F--king sluts!" and "No means yes! Yes means anal!" as students watched in horror.
“I think it’s hard to go through Yale and not have a roommate, a friend, a girlfriend, experience some sort of serious harassment.”
"This idea has been in the air for a number of years now," says Brodsky. "We'd come to Yale for this incredible, life-changing experience and found gender-based barriers standing in our way." She adds: "I can't imagine being a freshman, you got in because of your 4.0 GPA and 1600 SAT, and suddenly you're being told you're worth three beers."
Yale—whose first female dean has presided over the institution since 2008—says it has yet to see a copy of the complaint, and as a result, cannot comment on the allegations. But the university did confirm it has been notified of the investigation and takes the charges seriously. (The Office of Civil Rights, meanwhile, says it investigates about a third of the complaints that come in.) The timing is interesting, as Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are expected to announce new federal guidelines on Monday for how universities and colleges deal with sexual assault.
(UPDATE: On Monday, Biden and Duncan did, in fact, announce new guidelines, making clear schools' legal obligations under Title IX. And they stressed the seriousness of sexual assault on college campuses. “Every school would like to believe it is immune from sexual violence, but the facts suggest otherwise,” Duncan told reporters. He noted that young women ages 16 to 24 experience the highest rates of rape and sexual assault, while one in five will be a victim of sexual assault during college.)
In the meantime, should Yale be found to have violated law—and ultimately fail to come into compliance with federal guidelines—its federal funding that could be at stake, estimated at more than $500 million last year. "Yale does not and will not tolerate sexual harassment, and seeks to build an environment that is supportive of women and men, and of people of all gender and sexual identities," the university's dean, Mary Miller, said in a statement. "I want to assure you that Yale has a deep commitment to gender equity, and we will consider these allegations seriously."
It's no surprise that the women behind the complaint disagree. Hannah Zeavin, one of three women speaking on behalf of the group, says it was no more than a week into the first semester of her freshman year when she started feeling this way, when she was forced to attend a sex-ed seminar during orientation. The subject was date rape; the teaching model two actors on a stage, play-acting a sex scene. "Everyone in the audience was given paper 'Stop' signs, and we were supposed to raise them when we thought a crime was being committed," says Zeavin, a junior. "I put mine up first. But most of the rest didn't go up until after the crime had been committed." Zeavin was so dismayed, she bolted from the room crying. Within three months, she says, two of her friends would be sexually assaulted by other students. (She says just one of them reported it.)
Zeavin and Brodsky started talking, and late last year they decided to meet with a lawyer. They rounded up 14 other Yalies, as students call themselves, and started sharing stories. On March 15, they submitted the complaint, which includes testimonies going back seven years, from personal tales of sexual assault to public instances of misogyny. Of the public claims not previously mentioned: a 2004 stunt in which frat members hijacked the university's "Take Back the Night Clothesline Project," where rape victims reveal testimonies—things like "My rapist is still at Duke"—and display them on T shirts. A number of the T shirts went missing, later showing up on the backs of a bunch of frat boys causing a scene.
Then there are details about a 2008 incident in which dozens of Zeta Psi pledges circled the entrance to the Yale Women's Center with a poster reading, " We Love Yale Sluts," over which the center threatened to sue. And, of course, there is what the women believe has been Yale's far-too- tepid response to each of the incidents, which they contend were handled quietly, if at all. "A 'hostile environment' doesn't mean that every woman on this campus has been harassed," says Brodsky. "It means that Yale—in its failure to respond, both publicly and privately—sends the message that this behavior is tolerated."
The university is not without avenues to deal with these incidents—in fact, the complaint against the university in 1977 (which was ultimately dismissed) propped Yale up as a leader in sexual-harassment policy. In recent years, a number of new initiatives have been put forth by the university to deal with sexual misconduct: a recent provost report, a resource center called SHARE, and a plan to create a campus-wide disciplinary board that uses independent fact finders instead of those associated with the university. The university's Women's Center, in fact, chose not to sign onto the Title IX complaint, for fear it might affect the policy changes already underway. "I do hope that having this on everyone's radar will be a push to hold the administration accountable," says Natalia Thompson, a sophomore who serves as the center's political-action coordinator. "However, I'm disappointed by the complainants' exclusive focus on punitive measures to address the problem when we know that prevention education programs are so important."
But the larger problem, say many students, is that while there may be a system in place, much of it is ineffective. Yale created a Grievance Board for Sexual Assault after the 1977 suit, and it remains the first line of defense for students who want to report sexual assault on campus. But the board, staffed by a combination of students and faculty, is not authorized to deal with formal student-to-student harassment complaints. If a student wants to go a step further, she must go to the Yale Executive Committee—or ExComm, as students call it—a notoriously inept disciplinary body that was originally created to deal with things like plagiarism and cheating. ExComm can discipline students—from ordered counseling to a suspension or expulsion—but the action is kept strictly confidential, which means it has the capacity to be easily swept under the rug.
There are other resources: a student health center, a 24-hour resource hotline, and, of course, the Yale police department, which is a division of the New Haven PD. But students say police involvement in sexual crimes—and thus, potential legal action—is presented as a last resort. To make the point: a Feb. 9 email to students from Yale's chief of police advises victims of sexual assault to "let a responsible adult know," followed by a list, in the following order, of other resources: the 24-hour hotline, the health clinic, a residential college dean, and lastly, the Yale PD. A March 28 email about an off-campus robbery, meanwhile, advises anybody who notes suspicious activity to "immediately call the Yale Police," and includes a phone number. Zeavin claims this is all part of the problem. "It lays out exactly what to do from Yale's perspective, which is not to go to the hospital, not to go directly to police, but instead to contact immediately the people who can deal with it in-house," she says.
In reality, it may be nothing more than coincidence, but it's easy to get suspicious in a place whose legacy is so deep. There have been a number of publicized misconduct cases at Yale over the years: In 1999, a divinity student brought a civil action, claiming the university dissuaded her "from pursuing disciplinary action" against a male student who allegedly assaulted her; in 2004, an advocacy group filed a federal complaint alleging that Yale had been underreporting the number of sexual assaults on campus, required to be made public by law. (Yale police have reported between four and 13 forcible sex offenses each year since 2004.) And then there is the notorious (at least on Yale's campus) New York magazine article by Naomi Wolf in which she epically outed—after 21 years—a professor who'd groped her while she was his student but remains employed at Yale. "I began, nearly a year ago, to try—privately—to start a conversation with my alma mater that would reassure me that steps had been taken in the ensuing years to ensure that unwanted sexual advances of this sort weren't still occurring," Wolf wrote in 2004. "After nine months and many calls and emails, I was shocked to conclude that the atmosphere of collusion that had helped to keep me quiet 20 years ago was still intact—as secretive as a Masonic lodge."
The women behind the current complaint say there are hundreds more that have never been reported. And while they are adamant that they aren't out to "get" the university—Zeavin, in fact, is a fourth-generation Yalie—they want to fight the campus culture that makes that silence possible. Maybe, they say, this will even start a bigger movement. "If students at Yale do this, and our administration responds well, and the federal government responds well, then this can happen anywhere," says Zeavin.
Jessica Bennett is a Newsweek senior writer covering society, youth culture and gender. Her special reports, multimedia packages and original Web video have been honored by the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York and GLAAD, among other organizations. Follow her on Twitter.