The XX Factor

Patrick Witt’s Op-Ed About Harvard’s Sexual Assault Policy Is Infuriating. It’s Also Right.  

Patrick Witt during his Yale Bulldog days.

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Patrick Witt, the former Yale quarterback at the center of a highly covered 2012 sexual assault scandal, is back in print. Witt wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe on Monday deploring Harvard’s new sexual harassment policy, which resembles Yale’s in its “informal complaint” option: At both schools, students can file unofficial, secret accusations with a group of university staff. At Yale, this triggers a procedure that entails (per Yale’s website) “limited or no investigation” and results in measures like “a warning conversation with the respondent, a no-contact agreement, a recommendation for counseling, a change in housing, etc.”

Three years ago, Witt became a press darling when he announced his decision to miss his Rhodes Scholarship interview in order to lead the Yale Bulldogs against Harvard at the annual Harvard-Yale football game, which took place on Nov. 19. Months later, the New York Times published a story revealing that someone had filed an informal sexual harassment complaint against Witt in September, and that news of the allegations had leaked to the Rhodes Trust, which suspended Witt’s candidacy pending another letter of endorsement from Yale (one they may or may not have been willing to write). The Times reporter and many others—hi—concluded that Witt had actually turned down the interview because he knew his chances of gaining the Rhodes had significantly dimmed due to the complaint. At the time, I wrote that perhaps playing in The Game was Witt’s way of re-establishing control over his story, of reframing a potential disgrace as a heroic sacrifice. (Other reporters were also unimpressed by the QB’s membership in a notoriously misogynistic frat house and by his two arrests, one for entering a co-ed dorm drunk after hours, going upstairs without an escort, and shoving a student guard who tried to kick him out.)     

After the lash came the backlash, which rightly pointed out that Witt was innocent until proven guilty. (And because of Yale’s informal complaint system, he wasn’t going to be proven anything.) As to the B-plot, Witt insisted, despite a statement from the Rhodes Trust that called his timeline into question, that he’d decided to forgo the interview before Yale notified him that his Rhodes application was in jeopardy—a claim that leaves the hero narrative intact.

Now, Witt is back with more narrative, this time in the pages of the Boston Globe. With this piece, the first-year Harvard Law student protests a policy that “nearly ruined my life.” “In the hopes that my painful and humiliating experience might yet produce some good,” he writes, “I offer my own story as a real-life example of how this well-intended policy can produce disastrous consequences,” like being accepted to Harvard Law School.

The problem with the informal complaint system, Witt argues, is that “specific accusations are not disclosed to the accused, no fact-finding takes place, and no record is taken of the alleged misconduct.” He maintains that he is “innocent of the accusation”—which, of course, is a strange claim to make given that “accusations are not disclosed to the accused”—and that Yale’s sexual harassment policy “cost me my reputation and credibility, the opportunity to become a Rhodes scholar, the full-time job offer I had worked so hard to attain, and the opportunity to achieve my childhood dream of playing in the NFL.” You could point out here that, according to Witt’s original story, the complaint had nothing to do with his decision to bag the interview/Rhodes scholarship. Then again, Witt contradicts his own earlier account in the Globe op-ed, explaining that “days after the initial meeting with the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, I received a phone call from the Rhodes Trust informing me that they had received an anonymous tip that I had been accused by a fellow student of sexual misconduct.” Hmm.

Witt also states that the Times “later printed a retraction” of its original article, which is false:

But here’s the thing. Despite all the inconsistencies in Witt’s story, he’s right. He is right that “by giving to unsubstantiated accusations the confoundingly difficult-to-define title of ‘informal complaint,’ ” Yale plunged him under a cloud of suspicion he couldn’t dispel. He is right that “denying accused students an opportunity to clear their names” is unjust, “detached from the most basic elements of fairness and due process.” Everything Witt says about the power of these sub rosa systems to humiliate and handicap possibly innocent young men is correct—and perhaps that’s why 28 Harvard Law professors have inscribed their own objections to the new policy into the public record.

Actually, Witt’s fishy article makes his point far better than he knows. In addition to abusing students who can’t count on an investigation to shake the ignominy from their names, these sexual assault policies deny everyone the certainty that would preclude a piece like this from being written. The accused aren’t the only ones who deserve clarity and closure. But in the absence of proof that he did or didn’t do it, not to mention the absence of what “it” even is, Witt is free to spin whatever narrative he wants.