Agreeing to governmental demands, Princeton alters sexual-assault policies

In the face of strong federal pressure to act, the faculty voted last month to revise the University’s sexual-assault policies, including lowering the standard of proof in disciplinary proceedings.

As of mid-September, Princeton was one of more than 75 colleges under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the agency charged with enforcing Title IX. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender in federally funded education programs, and it applies to cases that involve sexual harassment, sexual violence, stalking, and intimate-partner violence.

OCR contacted the University in July about its review of Princeton’s practices, which was triggered by a complaint nearly four years ago. “It became clear that we needed to modify our sexual-misconduct policies and procedures to become fully compliant with current Title IX requirements,” President Eisgruber ’83 said, and that “we should make these changes as promptly as possible.”

A faculty committee met during the summer and recommended several changes that the OCR said were necessary, including adopting the standard of preponderance of the evidence — “more likely than not” — in sexual-misconduct cases. The University previously had used the standard of clear and persuasive evidence. Princeton noted that it was the last of its Ivy peers to move to the new standard. 

Other changes remove students from adjudication panels, provide for trained investigators to conduct investigations and make findings, allow people outside the University community — including lawyers — to serve as advisers to complainants and respondents, and give both parties the right to appeal.


Old Clear and persuasive

  • NewPreponderance of the evidence (“more likely than not”)


Old Independent investigator or administrator gathers information; subcommittee of the faculty-student Committee on Discipline adjudicates

  • NewTeam of three trained investigators gathers information, determines findings of fact and responsibility (no students are involved). Penalty determined by the dean of undergraduate students and an associate dean of the Graduate School


Old Must be from the University community

  • NewNon-University individuals, including lawyers, are permitted


Old Only the respondent

  • NewRespondent and complainant

The proposed revisions were distributed less than two weeks before the first faculty meeting of the year, on Sept. 15, and some faculty members called for more time to study the changes. During a 45-minute debate, questions were raised about the impact of each of the changes. 

Comparative literature professor Thomas Hare, a member of the committee that drew up the proposals, warned that federal penalties that Princeton could face for even a single violation of the law “are enormous.”

After rejecting a proposal to delay a vote, the faculty overwhelmingly voted in favor of the changes. 

Eisgruber announced the creation of a faculty-student Committee on Sexual Misconduct to review the effectiveness of Princeton’s procedures, support services, and efforts to prevent sexual misconduct. Dean of the Faculty Deborah Prentice said the new group would enable the faculty to “continue the conversation” about the new policies and could recommend further changes. Eisgruber said the committee would report back to the faculty in the fall of 2015.

The Council of the Princeton University Community was scheduled to vote Sept. 29 to incorporate the changes in Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, the University’s guide to standards of conduct.

Michele Minter, vice provost for institutional equity and diversity and Princeton’s Title IX coordinator, said the University hopes that the policy changes will encourage students to come forward to report incidents “within a system that is responsive and will take them seriously, that offers the resources to support them, that is accessible and fair.” 

The University’s actions come “at a very complicated moment nationally,” Minter said. “OCR has a very strong point of view, and even if we don’t entirely agree with every nuance of their interpretation of the law, we do share their goals.”