How Yale Screwed Up a Sexual Assault Complaint

The controversy over QB Patrick Witt highlights the trouble with college sexual-assault investigations.

Back in September, I wrote in the magazine about the problems posed for colleges and universities by the Department of Education’s new rules governing how they must respond to allegations of sexual assault. Over the weekend, those chickens came home to roost, big-time, as the news spread that Yale University quarterback Patrick Witt had been accused of sexual assault.

You may remember Witt; he was lauded nationally for choosing to forgo an interview for a Rhodes Scholarship in order to play in his final college football game (against Harvard), which was scheduled for the same day. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that Witt withdrew his candidacy for the scholarship after the Rhodes Trust “learned through unofficial channels that a fellow student had accused Witt of sexual assault.” The Times story, written by Richard Pérez-Peña, is rather extraordinary. For example, it includes these lines:

“Witt’s accuser has not gone to the police, nor filed what Yale considers a formal complaint. The New York Times has not spoken with her and does not know her name.”

Yale is no stranger to sexual assault controversies. It underwent a seven-year investigation by the Department of Education for underreporting sexual assaults on campus. And it revamped its internal procedures just last July, after a lengthy process of navel-gazing, following the announcement of another investigation by the department that resulted from the lodging of a Title IX complaint by 19 students claiming that the university had created a “hostile environment” for women. The department very publicly and loudly put colleges on notice that it was getting serious about Title IX enforcement by issuing new rules—circulated in a letter in April—that threaten the withdrawal of all federal funding, including student financial aid, for schools that fail to comply. You can bet Yale was trying, hard, to get it right in its revamp.

And yet here is the result: an anonymous complaint splashed all over the Times and every other major news outlet in the country (“must-read NYT exposé on the REAL reason Yale’s Patrick Witt withdrew” “uncovered the ACTUAL reason”), linked to Patrick Witt’s name for perpetuity.

How you feel about Witt is bound to be tied up with how you feel about jocks (Witt is one), fraternities (he belongs to one), drinking (Witt got into a scrap outside a nightclub in New Haven in 2010, and in 2007 was arrested by police at the University of Nebraska, his prior college, for going upstairs in a residence hall while intoxicated), and school-shopping for athletic purposes (he transferred from Nebraska to Yale, and attended four different high schools in three years, seeking a more friendly offensive scheme). Your reaction may also be colored by whether you believe, as many others do, that Yale suppressed its investigation because of the positive publicity bonanza it reaped from Witt’s decision to play in the Harvard game. But it’s worth remembering what was at stake for Yale if it didn’t play by the Department of Education rules. Those rules drastically lowered the burden of proof required for sexual misconduct claims, from “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “clear and convincing evidence” to “a preponderance of the evidence”—meaning just a shade more “I believe her” than “I believe him”— a change, according to Assistant Secretary Russlyn Ali, intended to give more weight to victims’ claims, so more of them will come forward. And still, the informal process willingly chosen by the complainant at Yale resulted in no disciplinary charges against Witt. Zero. None.

Yet somehow, through those “unofficial channels,” the Rhodes Trust was informed. Through more “unofficial channels”—the “half-dozen people with knowledge of all or part of the story” who spoke with Pérez-Peña “on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing matters that the institutions treat as confidential”—the New York Times put together and published its story.

Witt’s sports-agency representative issued a rebuttal of the Times‘s version of events. The usual suspects are engaging in elaborate conspiracy theories, and shouting about rape apologists. But here’s the takeaway, in the end: A young man’s reputation is in tatters based on an anonymous allegation that he committed sexual assault. And this, folks, is why we need to have one simple, standard way of judging whether sexual assault is sexual assault or not. There should be proof—good proof, not just a hairsbreadth of proof—that a crime has been committed. That proof should be given to police. And colleges and universities should get the hell out of the criminal-justice business.