Princeton University may soon make significant changes in the way it handles allegations of sexual misconduct, including lowering the standards required to find someone guilty in its disciplinary proceedings.
The changes at the university, whose sexual misconduct policies are the subject of a continuing federal investigation, would bring its procedures in line with those at peer institutions and in compliance, administrators say, with federal requirements.
For years, the university has forged its own path on this issue. Many colleges, including all the other members of the Ivy League, consider people to be guilty if a “preponderance of the evidence” suggests they committed sexual assault — basically, if it is more likely than not that they did so.
But Princeton has insisted on a higher burden of proof, convicting people only if there is “clear and persuasive evidence” of assault, a standard usually associated with criminal proceedings. It has held to that higher standard despite a nationwide directive from the Office of Civil Rights at the federal Education Department that said Title IX — the federal statute that compels equal treatment for male and female students in institutions receiving federal funds — requires the lower ”preponderance of the evidence“ threshold.
Last week, however, the university’s administration endorsed a proposal to lower the threshold.
The faculty committee that drafted that proposal also recommended using trained investigators to adjudicate these cases, rather than members of the Faculty-Student Committee on Discipline, a volunteer body that oversees a wide array of campus infractions. In addition, the committee recommended permitting involved parties to be accompanied by a lawyer, something that was previously forbidden, and affording the right to appeal not just to accused parties but also to accusers.
The new policies will be put to a faculty vote Sept. 15. If adopted, they would constitute a major change for Princeton, which had repeatedly argued that the higher burden of proof was necessary to ensure fair proceedings.
Announcing the new round of proposed changes, Christopher L. Eisgruber, the president of Princeton, said that in conversations with the Office of Civil Rights, “it became clear that we needed to modify our sexual misconduct policies and procedures to become fully compliant with current Title IX requirements, and that in the interest of fairness to all members of our community we should make these changes as promptly as possible.”
The change comes at a moment when sexual assault on college campuses, and the ways in which college administrations respond to it, are subjects of intense scrutiny across the country.
In addition to Princeton, more than 75 other colleges are under investigation for alleged Title IX violations. The White House has weighed in on the issue, convening a task force in January to study the problem.