Hanna Stotland on the Grey Area of Sexual Assault

Since her own rocky road to Harvard University, Hanna Stotland has made a living getting kids with a past into universities across America – a career that has seen her attract a specific and controversial clientele: young men accused of sexual misconduct. Stotland argues that before we decide what to do with “bad men,” we must determine which ones are bad.

Read Transcript EXPAND

Our next guest is college admissions consultant, Hanna Stotland.

Since her own rocky road into Harvard University, Stotland has made a living getting kids with a past into universities across America, a career that; s seen her attract a specific and somewhat controversial clientele, young men accused of sexual misconduct.

She argues that before we decide what to do with bad men we must determine which ones are bad.

It is a difficult task as she tells our Michel Martin.

Hanna Stotland, thanks so much for talking with us.


I'm glad to be here.

I understand that you actually have an interesting educational journey yourself, that you got your GED.


And then you actually transferred to Harvard, but just tell me a little bit about how all that happened.

So I flunked out of high school, I had straight F's my last three semesters and I didn't think I was college material, I didn't think I was going to go.

I got a job.

My parents said if you're going to live in the house you need to have a job, so I started working full time on my 18th birthday.

After a couple of years I thought I wanted to go to college but I had no idea if any four year college would take me basically on the strength of my test scores.

Eventually got into a small women's college, did really well there for two years and was able to transfer and ended up going to Harvard.

How did you get into educational consulting?

So this is something that came to me.

So after I transferred I got a job as a tour guide in the admissions office and, you know, I would be giving a tour and there's a little spot in the tour script where you say and this is what brought me to Harvard.

I'd say well I had straight Fs my last three semesters of high school, I have a GED, I got here when I was 22 and after every tour some family would take me aside and say you have to talk to my nephew.

He just got out of rehab and he wants to apply to college, you know, can you help us.

When people would say that, did that freak you out or did you think.

Well it was daunting.

I mean did you do it?

I mean did you call these people's nephew or whatever.

I would give them a card and I would say you know here's my e-mail address and if you want to get in touch with me and those that did I was happy to talk to.

They wanted to know, you know, can you retake the SAT when you're 20.

Yes, I had to do that.

Questions like that and so it grew from there and I started learning from my clients.

You said in one interview that I read with you two other folks in the field you said send me your addicted, you're convicted, your expelled, your eating disordered, your kryptonite cases if you will.

Did you mean that?

Why did you say that?

Absolutely, I meant it.

I think these are these are these kids can benefit from education too, and it's it's really hard for them to get it.

But I know how to help them do it.

I understand that you said you're doing a lot of you know eating disorders, kids who had to take health breaks, you know, from school trying to figure out how to get back in.

When did it become about sexual misconduct?

So I got my first two calls from students who had been accused of sexual misconduct in January 2014 and they asked can you help me in this situation and I said I have no idea, let's find out.

But after I had a few successful clients the next thing I knew I had dozens.

Why January 2014?

What did something happen then that started to stimulate these particular cases?

I'm not sure.

I think it was probably a delayed impact of the 2011 Obama era Dear Colleague letter from the Department of Education on that revised the standards that universities had to follow in adjudicating sexual misconduct cases.

Could you just briefly describe for people who don't follow this field what the shift was?

The shift was designed to push back against a system that was, I think, correctly perceived as silencing victims, particularly women, and it was perceived as not resulting in real consequences for folks who had committed harassment or assault and so it was an attempt to make the system more stringent so that there would be stricter enforcement of of Title 9, the law that mandates equality of the sexes in higher education.

Is there a typical scenario that brings someone to you?

So about two thirds of my cases stem from I would broadly say drunken hookup.

About one third of the cases the accusation happened following the breakup of in college terms a long term relationship.

And so are these mostly men, young men?

They are mostly young men who are accused.

By women?

But that's that's a mix.

I see both men and women accusing men.

I have a tiny handful of women who have accused, either by men or women.

And what do you do for them?

The main thing I do for them is help them make a plan for how to continue their education after this interruption and help them talk about the problem on their record in a way that gives them a shot at a second chance.

Do you ask them what happened here.


Because if you're representing somebody in a criminal proceeding I think the question would be what do they say happened.

I need both.

If if I'm going to help you write an explanation of what happened, I need to understand and you need to talk about both the best way of looking at the facts and the worst way of looking at the facts.

Talk to me a little bit more if you would about how you go about this?

I want to take the counseling equivalent of a searching medical history.

I want to know both from the point of view of you as a student, you know what major do I want, what kind of grad school do I want with my career plan and then also what happened here in the incident in question and also in the process that led you out of that school.

Do you look for remorse?


What if it's not forthcoming?

There's often disagreement about what happened and I don't try to evaluate, you know, whose version of events would match a videotape if there had been a videotape.

It's not my area of expertise, it's not my job, but it is essential to making the argument that you need a second chance that this won't happen again.

If this was just a lightning strike that could have happened to anyone then you have no leg to stand on saying.

I'm going to prevent this from happening again in my life.

So even if you feel you didn't commit assault, which maybe you didn't I wasn't there, you better find other choices that you made that you would make differently now.

Maybe you weren't as kind as you could have been, maybe you were drinking under age, maybe you were hooking up with someone who either had been drinking or using drugs and now you think that that wasn't smart.

You know, so you need to look at what your failures of judgment, of kindness, of any standard that you want to live up to in the future, look at those failures and talk about how you've changed them.

How did you know you're not introducing somebody dangerous back into an environment where they're just going to do something else because guess what they got away with it?

It's always possible that someone who has done something wrong in the past will repeat that behavior.

There's a couple of assumptions in the question that I want to unpack.

One is that these kids are going to be in the community somewhere.

These are not students who are typically charged with anything criminally and so they can be in the community as students or they can be in the community as workers are volunteers.

If indeed someone is a habitual predator, they they can and will be that wherever they may be, you know, unless they're in a cell which is usually not on the table.

Can you give us an example without to the degree that you can without violating your vow of confidentiality to your client, can you just give me a little bit more detail about a scenario?

So there's a few typical scenarios.

One is two people meet at a party.

They go off and hook up.

Both have been drinking.

Following the hookup in some days or months later.

One of the parties alleges that they were too drunk to consent to the hookup.

You know, in that case, frequently the person who didn't make the allegation is going to be expelled or suspended, even if they were equally or more inebriated related and there the whole question that the case would turn on is were they intoxicated or were they incapacitated.

Which party, the complainant or both?

The complainant and so that is probably the single most common scenario that I see where you have two intoxicated people and to end and everyone agrees that the that the encounter was, appeared consensual at the time that there that there was yes there was participation there wasn't no, but the consent, the apparent consent was no good because of the level of intoxication and so that that's the that's the core of the dispute usually that determines whether someone gets expelled or not is how drunk do we think the accuser was at that moment.

Are you telling me that the bulk of your caseload is ambiguous consent?

The bulk of my caseload is ambiguous.

And it's not force, there's not force involved, in your view.

There is a meaningful minority of my cases where force is alleged and there's usually mixed evidence on that question.

The majority of my cases don't involve an allegation of force.

What is this about in your view?

There were a lot of people who are saying you know what, time's up, right?



That women have been manipulated for too long, have been coerced and have had it and they're speaking up now.

That's what some people say is happening.

I take it you say it's actually different than that?

No, I agree with that.

I think that is happening and I think there are a whole lot more accusations.

People are speaking up both in cases where where the evidence is unambiguous in supporting the the allegation and cases where it's ambiguous or even runs contrary to the allegation, but it is absolutely true that the patriarchy has been silencing victims of sexual violence for millennia, that we ought to do something about that and that in general the fact that you have a lot of complaints is not a bad thing.

But let me break it down.

You know you are a lawyer, right?

Yes But you don't represent people in court, do you?

That's right.

OK, so criminal defense lawyers often get this question, right, which is how can you defend that person and typically what they say is you know it's in the Constitution.

You know, you have a right to a defense, you have a right to be represented by counsel and that I think a lot of them would say, particularly people who take cases that other people won't, which is that if the system doesn't work for everybody it doesn't work for anybody, OK.

But go to a four year college, a private college, a prestigious college, that's not in the Constitution, and I remembered one of the interviews you said that there was a client you helped who who was super happy because he didn't have to go to community college and the question I think a lot of people might have is why are they entitled to go to a private four year college, a prestigious college?

You know why is that something that they have to have?

They don't have to have it and they aren't entitled to it.

They may earn it and my students again the only reason to work with me is to tell your whole story and give each institution an opportunity to make their own decision and for a typical client of mine who's been expelled from undergrad I would encourage them to apply to about 30 universities and I expect them to get into three to five, that's often a very good outcome for one of my students.

So there are plenty of colleges that have no trouble saying no, but if what I'm helping the student do is make their case for why one of the spots in the class, and they're not necessarily highly selective colleges, but why one of the spots in class it would be well served with me.

And told me why, I mean you say you think you're helping make the system more fair.

Tell me why?

We get the the motto almost believe women and I think we absolutely should believe women and accusers in general when we are their friends, their doctors, their professors, their family members.

When your student or patient or friend or loved one comes to you and says I was assaulted, believe them, absolutely believe them.

If you are a judge a juror a journalist or a decision maker at a college, there's no one you should automatically believe.

In the first instance, your job is to provide support and care for the person in your life and in the second much smaller group, and many people are in both groups at different times, but in the second much smaller group, your job is to seek the truth.

Hanna Stotland, thanks so much for talking with us.

Thank you so much for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, about humanitarian efforts to mitigate the human catastrophe in Syria; and former talk show host Dick Cavett about his extraordinary career. Michel Martin speaks with college and law school admissions consultant Hanna Stotland about helping young men accused of sexual misconduct succeed.