NEW YORK — Yeshiva University has pledged to “restructure” an office that deals with sexual harassment and assault, after the school came under fire over an alleged rape case last year.
Student activists said the university’s statement was a positive development, but not enough of a commitment and lacking any acknowledgment of “past mistakes.”
The issue has come to the fore after a student said in an anonymous newspaper column in August that a university basketball player raped her. She said the school handled her callously after she reported the incident. Then, the university’s basketball team went on an improbable, record-setting win streak, garnering widespread praise.
The flagship Modern Orthodox university in New York City said in its Tuesday statement that it had formed a committee several months ago to evaluate its policies and procedures on sexual harassment and assault.
The committee said after its evaluation that “a restructured Title IX Office should be established with a professional dedicated exclusively for sexual harassment and assault matters.”
Title IX is a federal civil rights law that deals with gender discrimination in federally funded education programs, and covers sexual assault and harassment.
The Yeshiva University committee also recommended providing more clear information for sexual assault procedures on the university’s website, training for counselors, and improved Title IX training for students.
The university said it outsources sexual assault investigations to “top tier third-party firms who are experts in conducting such investigations.”
The statement said the university adheres to all federal and state guidelines and procedures pertaining to sexual harassment and assault, according to the investigation, which included focus groups, specialists, professionals and third-party experts.
The statement was attributed to undergraduate dean Karen Bacon.
University President Ari Berman announced the changes to students in an email on Tuesday, according to The Commentator, an independent Yeshiva University student newspaper. The letter said the administration will begin to implement the changes during the spring semester.
The statement did not acknowledge any mistakes by the university.
Student activists said the letter was overall a positive development, noting that students and alumni initially proposed most of the recommendations. However, they said the statement lacked a timeline for implementing the recommendations and did not take responsibility for anything in the past.
The opening of the letter, which lays out the investigation and its findings, “reads defensively and not everything written aligns with the survivor’s story,” said Cayla Muschel and Noa Berman, leaders of the Yeshiva University group Students Against Sexual Assault.
“The purpose of this letter was seemingly to try and reassure the community that they are making change, not to communicate a sense of responsibility for past mistakes,” Muschel and Berman told The Times of Israel. “We are still missing a sense of accountability.”
The university formed the committee referenced in the letter after the student wrote an anonymous column in The Commentator saying a member of the basketball team had raped her during the previous school year.
She said the school made her and her alleged rapist sign a non-disclosure agreement before launching its investigation. The Forward confirmed the existence of the non-disclosure agreement in an interview with the accuser in August. The alleged rapist has also not been named publicly.
The woman said another member of the basketball team called her a “whore” and a “slut” in a “semi-public place” after she filed claims about the incident. She said she believes the school may have been partially motivated to neglect the case to protect “the reputation of the basketball team.”
She is also an athlete at the university and is still a student there.
She said the university told her after the investigation that “it’s usually hard to prove something happened when only two people were there.”
The woman further described the case in an anonymous interview with the Jeff Lax radio show last week.
She said the university had not accessed her hospital rape kit in its investigation, won’t reopen the case, and would not take measures to separate her from her alleged rapist on campus, without his approval.
Asked about the allegations, a university spokesperson told The Times of Israel, “At this time we have no additional information to share.” The university has previously said that legal limitations restrict what it is able to discuss, and that students are always able to contact the police with the full support of the university.
In response to the student’s allegations in August, the university said at the time that sexual assault and harassment were a “top priority” for it, and that administrators would meet with students to discuss the issue.
The student activists said the administration met with them after the initial Commentator article, but did not keep up with them afterward.
Students feel frustrated by the situation, Berman and Muschel said.
“Our sense is that students are really feeling frustrated, and have lost faith in the administration to care for their needs,” they said. “Most of the community is outraged, but worse, it’s an unsurprised outrage. People have come to expect apathy from YU to its students.
“The committee claims that they ‘care deeply about the safety and well-being of [their] students.’ In short, we are asking them to demonstrate that care,” they said.
They urged greater transparency from the university, better communication and closer cooperation with students.
Yeshiva University’s basketball team gained national attention this year with a record-setting win streak that earned it glowing profiles in ESPN and other national outlets. The Division III team ended its 50-game winning streak last month with a loss to Illinois Wesleyan, its first defeat since November 2019.
There are no allegations of wrongdoing by the basketball team, or by other players.
The university has come under fire over sexual abuse claims in the past.
In 2019, dozens of former students of a high school operated by the university said they had been molested in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The lawsuit alleged the university failed to protect the students at Yeshiva University High School for Boys.
A separate $380 million lawsuit over past handling of sexual abuse allegations was dismissed in 2014, but was revived in different forms after New York State changed legal statues for cases of alleged sexual abuse.