CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In a brightly lit classroom here at Harvard, Mia Karvonides was trying to explain to a group of bemused student leaders the difference between a romantic encounter and “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” as the university’s relatively new code of sexual misconduct defines it.
She tried to leaven the legalistic atmosphere at the town-hall-style meeting with realistic-sounding examples, defying gender stereotypes. Jose and Lisa, chemistry students, are working late at night in the lab, she began, when Lisa comes up from behind and kisses Jose on the neck.
Such a surprise move, she suggested, could be the beginning of a sexual misconduct complaint. “I want to acknowledge that this isn’t so simple,” Karvonides said. “I don’t have any magic words for you. It takes a little bit of a closer look to grasp the concepts.”
Karvonides is Harvard’s first Title IX officer, leading a new bureaucracy that oversees how the institution responds to complaints of sexual violence under Title IX, the federal law that governs gender equity in education. She is one of a rapidly growing number of Title IX employees on campuses nationwide, as colleges spend millions to hire lawyers, investigators, case workers, survivor advocates, peer counselors, workshop leaders and other officials to deal with increasing numbers of these complaints.
Recently, the dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, resigned when it became public that he had been disciplined for sexually harassing his executive assistant, yet he had been allowed to remain on the job. The dean apologized, though he later disputed the circumstances of the case.
And the captain of Yale’s basketball team was expelled in February after a confidential school proceeding found that he had nonconsensual sex with a female student, according to his lawyer. But the lawyer said that the former player maintained that the woman had consented.
The expansion of Title IX bureaucracies — often at great expense — is driven in part by pressure from the federal government, which recently put out a series of policy directives on sexual misconduct on campus. More than 200 colleges and universities are under federal investigation for the way they have handled complaints of sexual misconduct, up from 55 two years ago.
But the growth of these bureaucracies also reflects the difficulties that students, parents, administrators and faculty members face as they negotiate changing ideas and standards of sexual behavior.
And in a report last week, a national association of professors said that the Title IX bureaucracy had started to infringe on academic freedom, by beginning investigations into faculty members’ lectures and essays.
Because of these complexities, dealing with these kinds of cases has been wrenching for students, faculty members and administrators. Many women’s groups have set a much lower bar for what constitutes sexual misconduct than previous generations, leading to more internal review of campus behavior.
“I think this is becoming more of an issue because it’s actually being recognized as an issue, rather than hidden behind the veils that existed for previous generations,” said Melanie Boyd, an assistant dean for student affairs at Yale College who oversees sexual violence prevention programs.
Title IX, enacted in 1972, bars discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs that receive federal funds. It is more familiar as the law used to promote gender equity in sports and faculty hiring. But a 2011 federal policy statement clarified that it also applies to how universities deal with complaints of sexual assault. At a minimum, federal rules require colleges to designate one Title IX coordinator, at least part time.
Many colleges have gone far beyond that, at a cost ranging from thousands to millions of dollars. College officials said it was difficult to put a price tag on the efforts because they often span more than one department and involve volunteers and doubling up on jobs.
“There’s so much more litigation on all sides of the issue,” said Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, an industry group of 5,000 members that did not exist in 2011, and has doubled in size for each of the past two years. “This has very much created a cottage industry.”
Title IX coordinators, who carry out policy and oversee how institutions respond to complaints, can earn $50,000 to $150,000 a year. Sokolow estimated that the cost of lawyers, counselors, information campaigns and training to fight sexual misconduct ranges from $25,000 a year at a small college, to $500,000 and up at larger or wealthier institutions.
At the University of California, Berkeley, officials said, Title IX spending had risen by at least $2 million since 2013, though they declined to give the total.
“Certainly, colleges are spending more related to Title IX than ever in history, both preventatively and responsively,” Sokolow said. He estimated that dealing with an inquiry could cost “six figures,” and that responding to a lawsuit “can run into the high six or even seven figures, not counting a settlement or verdict.”
A check of employment ads online found recent calls for Title IX officials at the University of Chicago, Elon University, Barnard College, George Mason University, University of the Pacific, Lynn University and Columbia University.
Columbia guarantees outside counsel to advise students on either side of the sexual misconduct hearing process, with the university picking up the bill. It has doubled the number of advocates, educators and counselors to 11 from five just three years ago. Instead of two investigators and case workers, it now has seven.
At Yale, nearly 30 faculty and staff members work part time or full time in support of Title IX efforts, and twice as many faculty and staff members and students volunteer as advisers and committee members. In addition, Yale has trained 48 students who are paid to listen to students and intercede when they seem to be in distress.
Occidental College in Los Angeles hired a law firm, Pepper Hamilton, to conduct what was essentially a Title IX compliance audit.
Harvard has 50 full-time and part-time Title IX coordinators across 13 schools. Karvonides, a civil rights and education lawyer, was hired in March 2013. Under her leadership, the university adopted the new sexual misconduct policy and created a bureau of trained investigators.
Harvard dormitories have tutors for students to talk to about matters of sexual conduct. This month, a task force recommended that the university put more resources into sexual assault prevention, including hiring one or more people to coordinate the disparate efforts.
Still, despite the best efforts of Karvonides and others, students are yearning for a clear code of conduct.
Some campuses have adopted “affirmative consent” rules, in effect a written or unwritten contract, requiring a yes before the first kiss and at every step along the way. Harvard has opted instead for what Karvonides called a more nuanced standard of “unwelcome conduct.”
This has led to criticism by some that the policy is not strong enough, and by others that it could punish behavior as mild as flirting.
“This is ubiquitously on the mind of everyone at Harvard,” said Daniel Banks, the undergraduate council vice president, who helped organize the recent town-hall-style meeting on the subject. Many students have concluded that the best solution is not so much compliance as avoidance.
“You either don’t date at all,” said Daniel Levine, another student leader, “or you’re like a married couple.”