An increasingly popular tool among colleges and universities is the campus climate survey — a method for administrators to take the pulse of their student bodies. These studies might gauge, for instance, whether they are indulging in dangerous habits, such as binge drinking or illicit substances, or if minority students feel comfortable day-to-day.
Such surveys also often reveal the frequency with which students report being sexually assaulted, though officials have been criticized for not acting on this information, or not publicizing their statistics. Sexual assault prevention activists have lamented this lack of transparency, saying university leaders are more worried about their institutions' reputations taking a hit than they are about addressing sexual misconduct.
Similar concerns abound with the release of an extensive report on campus sexual violence from the Association of American Universities (AAU), which represents research universities across the country. The survey, published this week, shows roughly one in four undergraduate women at 33 of the most prominent research institutions nationwide have been sexually touched or penetrated without their consent while attending college.
All of the participating universities have or intend to release their individual results publicly, a reversal from 2015, when the association last published a similar report. Outcry from advocates pushed universities to share the data.
"Although we've made progress, there is much work to do," Mary Sue Coleman, the association's president, wrote in the report. "Our institutions within AAU and other colleges and universities must continue to educate students about how to report sexual assault and misconduct."
A total of 181,752 students — including those who identify as male or female as well as transgender and gender-nonconforming students — across the institutions answered questions about whether they had experienced sexual violence and their perceptions of how administrators responded to these issues. The association contracted with Westat, a social science research firm, for both the 2015 survey and follow-up released this week.
The 2015 report and this year's survey confirm an oft-cited but controversial talking point that one in four undergraduate women are sexually assaulted during their time on campus. This statistic has been criticized for potentially overstating the problem of sexual violence.
About 13% of students overall had sexual contact without their permission, according to this year's report. Advocates praised the survey for highlighting gender-nonconforming students. More than 20% of undergraduate students with an alternative gender identity said they had experienced sexual violence.
More students, compared to the 2015 study, are starting to understand the definition of sexual assault, but many do not report their encounters. Almost 70% of the female undergraduates indicated that being sexually penetrated without permission was "not serious enough" to report, or another similar reason, because they had not been injured.
"The results provide cause for both hope and continued concern," Coleman said in a separate statement. "They reveal that, while students know more about university-sponsored resources for victims of sexual assault and misconduct, they still aren't using these resources often enough."
Long-term action plans needed
While universities should be commended for agreeing to take part in the study, sexual violence will only be mitigated with a long-term plan, Morgan Dewey, a spokesperson with advocacy group End Rape on Campus, told Education Dive. Institutions have progressed by making campus climate surveys more accessible — giving students the ability to take them on mobile devices, or in other languages — but if "sexual assault is swept under the rug" nothing will happen.
"More schools are starting to implement them," Dewey said of the action plans. "But you need that broad community buy-in, and [that] culture change piece has to happen. You need the community to care about this."
Dewey gave the example of offering different forms of therapy for specific groups of students that had reported frequent sexual assaults; Native American students, for instance, might want to use a sweat lodge to address the trauma of sexual violence, she said.
Institutions have been forced to publicly share data about sexual violence or harassment on campus, as required by amendments to a federal disclosure law in 2013. But these incidents are notoriously underreported, both by students and college administrators, Laura Dunn, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based law firm L.L. Dunn and advocacy group SurvJustice, said in an interview with Education Dive.
Dunn said she has encountered institutions that collected campus climate data but deliberately not shared it.
"Data is only good if it's not hidden in a drawer somewhere," Dunn said.
"You need the community to care about this."
Founding partner, L.L. Dunn
Many high-ranking administrators at participating institutions, which include some members of the Ivy League, have pledged to hold public meetings about the results or review their sexual misconduct policies.
Georgetown University will be holding two "listening sessions" for students later this month, and it established a team of students and staff that will meet regularly to talk about how best to handle sexual assault-prevention training and incident reports.
Meanwhile, Stanford University, which had nearly 24% of undergraduate women reporting non-consensual sexual contact, said it would evaluate the practices of its Institutional Equity and Access office, which responds to concerns of sexual violence and harassment on campus.
"The prevalence of sexual violence on our campus is a problem that cannot be solved by one person, one group or one office," Persis Drell, Stanford's provost, said in a written statement. "We are committing the university to driving this effort, but real and lasting solutions will not come about unless we have the commitment of every single member of our community to participate in the culture change that is needed to end sexual violence on our campus and on college campuses nationwide."