University Group to Survey Students on Campus Sexual Assault

The Association of American Universities announced it will sponsor a new climate survey on campus sexual assault next year. But a group of university researchers says that, as planned, the survey is not transparent enough to prove very valuable.

A group of universities is aiming to provide perspective around the issue of sexual assault on as many as 60 campuses across the United States.

Last week, the Association of American Universities announced it had hired a research firm to conduct a survey of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students at participating AAU member institutions that is intended to document the frequency and characteristics of campus sexual assault and harassment, as well as assess campus climate toward these incidents.

“Sexual assault is unquestionably one of the most important and complex issues our campuses face,” AAU President Hunter Rawlings said in a statement. “The first priority for our universities is the safety of their students. That is paramount. Universities also have a responsibility to ensure that adjudicatory processes are trustworthy and fair.”

The announcement came days before Rolling Stone magazine published a 9,000-word investigative story detailing the violent rape of a University of Virginia student at a fraternity party in 2012 and describing a university culture of sweeping sexual assault under the rug. In a response to the article, UVA President Teresa Sullivan said the university will fully cooperate in a new police investigation into the 2012 rape. She also outlined several new initiatives the university recently adopted to create “a culture of reporting and raising awareness of the issues.”

AAU, of which UVA is a member along with 61 other private and public research universities in the United States and Canada, is asking students to report those types of initiatives in its survey via five campus-specific questions geared toward determining students’ awareness of campus resources, support services, and reporting mechanisms regarding sexual assault.

Transparency Questions

While AAU said it will publicly disseminate most of the survey results, it will share the five campus-tailored questions only with the corresponding universities that can then choose how and whether to share those responses. This detail has a group of sexual-assault researchers urging university presidents and chancellors not to participate in the study, which will be conducted in April 2015.

In a letter to campus leaders, the researchers listed five objections to the survey, including the lack of transparency. “Without comparative data among institutions, the practical value of a nationwide survey will be severely limited,” the letter stated.

One of the letter’s cowriters, University of Oregon psychology professor Jennifer Freyd, echoed this thought in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

“This doesn’t smell open, this smells closed,” she said of the survey. “Of all the topics to be secretive about, you don’t want to be secretive about sexual violence because that’s where it thrives.”

Meanwhile, in its letter to members, AAU stressed the importance of conducting a campus-climate survey, and soon: “It is crucial that we move forward together on this effort at an aggressive pace. In part, we want to be able to develop solid data and information before Congress and the White House mandate, as we expect, that every campus conduct a government-developed survey in the near future, which will likely be a one-size-fits all survey that does not reliably assess the campus culture on this issue.”

The rotunda at the University of Virginia, a school that has been a focus of sexual assault allegations in recent weeks. (Bob Mical/Flickr)

Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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