Columns

Johnson ’19: Harvard, please do better

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, November 7, 2016

At the end of last month, a file written by the Harvard men’s soccer team in 2012 was found on the Internet. Called a “scouting report,” the document described incoming recruits on the women’s soccer team by giving them a numerical rating for attractiveness, assigning them a sex position and devoting paragraphs to their physical appearance.  The report is apparently an annual tradition within the men’s soccer team but has only just been publicly discovered. The men’s soccer team — along with other athletic teams — is now under university investigation.

After a week of relative silence, Harvard administrators have started to take action. Director of Athletics Robert L. Scalise cancelled the remaining men’s soccer season Thursday in an attempt to convey the university’s stance on sexual harassment. The university has also proposed investigations of other athletic teams and sexual assault education for all athletic programs. So far, investigations have found that the men’s cross country team created similar spreadsheets objectifying the women’s team. These proposed actions would be the absolute minimum response, but at the end of the day, this is just a start.

Cancelling the rest of the soccer team’s season was an important decision, but more action is necessary to prevent the type of culture that allows for such blatant misogyny. The general sexual assault education that the director of athletics mentioned will hopefully be long term and mandatory for the entire Harvard community. Similar programs, if not already in place, need to be a central part of incoming students’ introduction to college. These sessions need to tackle body shaming and objectification, and they need to be sustained for far longer than one assembly during freshman orientation. If current students are exposed as leading participants in the creation of the reports, they should be punished on an institutional level so all students understand that such harassment is unacceptable. And while Harvard’s actions are setting a minimum baseline for addressing the harassment, the immediate responses from officials are still inadequate.

The initial statements from a few of Harvard’s administrators were insufficient and even — in certain cases — nonexistent. The athletic director’s first statement when interviewed focused on Harvard’s compromised “learning environment” and the “potential for this to happen” in any large group of people. He never mentioned the phrase “rape culture” or even “sexual harassment.” He did not offer sympathy to the women directly named and harmed in the report or to women in general who would read the document and feel harmed indirectly. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana initially failed to respond, and when he did, he said he was disturbed by the “allegations of sexism.” This is a damaging pairing of words, echoing the long-standing culture of victim blaming in institutions across the country. Even though he added that “no one should be objectified,” there was no sentence that labeled the document as definitively sexist and harmful. The previous dean of the college in 2012, Evelynn M. Hammonds, would not give a response at all. And while cancelling the team’s season a week later was a stronger move, the language in the announcement did not improve upon the language administrators initally offered. Administrators initially said the team’s “behavior was unacceptable” without labeling it for what it is: misogyny.

The athletic director also said that the media should not be involved in Harvard’s incident. But wanting to quietly address such sexual harassment fails to recognize the broader scope of the issue. In cases like this, media attention mobilizes awareness and action, and there is absolute need for more awareness on sexual harassment. The type of objectification found in the scouting report is something all women can identify with on some level. When one person comes forward, others are more willing to do the same — and that is why media attention on reports like this is so crucial. Other universities might also be more likely to investigate their programs in light of Harvard’s response, but that would only be possible with a transparent and well-reported investigation. Harvard is one of the most elite institutions in the country, and with that position comes a responsibility to use the media spotlight to send a decisive message against sexual harassment.

The scouting report is one of many forms of harassment that ranks, objectifies and sexualizes women based on their physical appearances. And this isn’t just prevalent in higher education institutions. For a time, my high school peers joined a regional trend, creating a Twitter page to rank female students. The school made no public intervention whatsoever, and in turn, the sexism fundamental to that Twitter page was permitted and fostered. I see echoes of the same mistakes in Harvard’s actions, even if the university has tried to take a strong position. One of the reasons the soccer team’s report was an annual tradition — and on a broader level, one of the reasons a presidential candidate who is sexually abusive is still considered electable — is that sexism is not effectively addressed by those in positions of authority and accountability. Harvard as an institution, with all its administrators and leaders, needs to make an immediate and forceful statement that addresses the underlying misogyny behind the reports. So far, the language of the university’s leaders has fallen short.

Just reading the “scouting report” as conveyed in national media is personally offensive to anyone who has been subjected to harassment or body shaming. Cancelling the men’s soccer season was the right first step, but there is still more that must be implemented to change a culture that would allow such horrific harassment on an annual basis. The language in the scouting reports is permanent, searing and abusive to women. If we really want to respond to them, we need to use more powerful language that will lead to long-lasting change.

Grace Johnson ’19 can be reached at grace_johnson@brown.edu.