Nearly six months after 23 students filed Title IX, Title II, and Clery Act noncompliance complaints against Columbia and Barnard with the Department of Education, the complainants are still waiting for a decision on whether or not the department will formally investigate.
The timeline is significantly longer than those experienced by students at Brown University and Harvard University who filed complaints against their schools last spring. At both universities, the DOE's Office for Civil Rights, which handles such cases, reviewed the students' complaints within 10 weeks of them being filed.
"It's a little bit of guesswork as to why some complaints take longer than others to be reviewed, but I'd imagine it has a lot to do with their [the OCR's] current workload," said Erin Buzuvis, the director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Studies at Western New England University School of Law and co-founder of the Title IX Blog.
Part of the reason Columbia's complaint has taken so long to process could be its size—the complaint against Harvard was filed by two students, and the complaint against Brown by a nonprofit representing one student. In contrast, the original complaints against Columbia were filed by 23 students. Since then, four more have signed on, and Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, CC '15, one of the authors of the complaint, said in an email that an additional 250 pages were added in August.
Still, even though the scale of the complaints against Columbia is much larger than Harvard's and Brown's, it took OCR just three months to decide to investigate Swarthmore College in 2013 when 13 students filed a Title IX complaint against the college.
If OCR decides to investigate Columbia, the University will join the list of 76 other universities currently under investigation for their handling of sexual assault.
"I've seen examples that have taken years and years, and other times it's resolved within a year," Buzuvis said. "It's hard to generalize about the length, but it [Columbia's timeline] makes sense just looking at what, realistically, is possible for an agency that at the same time has perhaps a stronger mandate to get things done faster but has never had a workload like this before."
A DOE spokesperson said that OCR does not confirm whether it has received a complaint, but that it does publicly announce when it opens an investigation into an institution.
In an interview last week, University President Lee Bollinger said that he did not have any updates on the status of the complaints.
Despite Obama's presidential task force formed in January to address the issue of sexual violence on college campuses, and the report released by that task force in May that vowed to increase OCR's speed and efficiency, the agency is still struggling to keep up with rising demands.
Although OCR received roughly the same number of complaints—just over 700—in 2014 as it did in 1993, it has one-third fewer staff members now: 558, compared with 854. That's 40 fewer staff than necessary to meet the current caseload, according to a recent internal document.
"I'd like to believe that the government is working as fast and as efficiently as they can, but I also recognize that they have close to 80 open matters on this issue alone, let alone all the other statutes of Title IX that they enforce in secondary and postsecondary institutions," Buzuvis said.
Between 2009 and 2012, the OCR received over 120 Title IX complaints specifically related to sexual violence. Only 11 investigations were both launched and resolved, according to a 2012 DOE report.
Meanwhile, the Columbia students who spent months compiling the complaint said that reaching out to the federal government is just one part of their efforts to fix the way Columbia handles sexual violence on campus—efforts that have often been frustrated.
"We've had meetings, we've done activism, we've been seeking counseling, and nothing has worked," Ridolfi-Starr said in April. "We're desperate. We have no other option."