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Numbers all “too high” in results of other schools’ climate surveys

By Elianna Spitzer

Section: News

November 6, 2015

Brandeis joined the ranks of many universities nationwide when they released the results of its “Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Violence” on Oct. 8, 2015.

The initiative to conduct Campus Climate Surveys was put forth by the Obama Administration, in January of 2014 when they launched the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The task force produced its first report in April of 2014. This report encompassed ways in which schools across America could improve their handling of sexual assault cases, including assessment, prevention and response.

When it surveyed its students in April, Brandeis reported a response rate of 34.3 percent, a percentage was similar to that of other schools in the Boston area. “The Association of American Universities (AAU) reported that their survey response rate was 19.3 percent,” to a fact sheet released by Brandeis read. “Harvard’s was 53 percent; MIT’s was 35 percent; Boston University’s was 22 percent; and Tufts University’s was 28.7 percent.” Though the response rates were somewhat similar, the surveys themselves were each different.

This semester, the AAU and universities across the country released the results of their surveys. Schools chose to display their results in different ways. Wellesley College, for example, displayed its survey results in three pages, while Harvard University’s climate survey spanned 253 pages. Wellesley asked broad questions such as whether their students had experienced sexual assault and presented the results in colorful graphs. 14 percent of students at Wellesley answered that they had in fact experienced sexual assault.

One survey similar to Brandeis’ is MIT’s climate survey. Both surveys featured a section on students’ experiences on campus, both inside and outside classrooms. “We asked questions about ‘sense of community’ among our students and about perceptions of gender issues that we believe important to understand,” said Brandeis Sexual Assault and Prevention Specialist Sheila McMahon in an email to the Hoot. “MIT, which also conducted its own survey, included similar lines of questions.”

Both surveys asked students if someone had “made sexist remarks or jokes about women in [their] presence” or if someone had “told you about their sexual experiences when you did not want to hear them.”

Both MIT and Brandeis used explicit language when referring to sexual misconduct or assault. MIT asked its students if they had experienced sexual assault, but further narrowed the question into sections: sexual touching or kissing, attempted oral sex, oral sex, attempted sexual penetration and sexual penetration. “Overall, eight percent indicated being either sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and/or raped,” according to MIT’s survey results. In its survey, Brandeis used parentheses in its questions to define terms such as rape and sexual assault. Both sets of survey results used a mixture of graphs and text.

Brandeis’ results were broken into two categories: sexual assault and rape. “22 percent of women, five percent of men and 35 percent of students who identify as trans* or other indicated they had been sexually assaulted, including inappropriate sexual touching, fondling, grabbing and groping,” wrote Interim President Lisa M. Lynch in the release email. “Of undergraduate respondents, six percent of women and one percent of men said they had been raped (non-consensual penetration).” Lynch also added that “overall, 1.3 percent of graduate student respondents indicated they had been sexually assaulted or raped.”

Harvard’s survey also chose to break terms such as sexual assault into categories. It first asked if students had experienced penetration, then whether it had been by physical force, incapacitation or both. Harvard also asked whether the act had been “completed” or “attempted.” Harvard’s results were presented in block format, dominated by text and tables. The results of the Harvard survey said that “4.2 percent of all students who responded to the survey reported that they had experienced some form of ‘nonconsensual sexual contact’ during the past year.”

“By senior year, 29.2 percent of female undergraduates reported experiencing non-consensual penetration or sexual touching by force or incapacitation,” read a statistic highlighted by Harvard.

Harvard used a survey developed by the UAA. The AAU implemented a version of the task force’s survey at 27 universities in April of 2015. “Overall, 11.7 percent of students across the 27 universities reported experiencing non-consensual penetration or sexual touching by force or incapacitation since enrolling at the [institution of higher education],” according to their results.

According to McMahon, any comparison of results between universities or with an average is difficult. “With different universities using different survey instruments, it is impossible to exact comparisons,” she said. “That said, the numbers are all in the same ballpark, and they are all too high … any number of sexual assaults on campus is too many.”

Members of the Brandeis community are looking for ways to better address the results. “As painful as these data are, we are not afraid of the self-examination and action they demand,” wrote Lynch in a later email to the Brandeis community.

In response to the results, McMahon wrote to The Hoot that Brandeis is “committed to redoubling our efforts to improve our education programs and make information more understandable and accessible.” She added that Brandeis would put more effort into outreach programs for the undergraduate trans* and other communities, as well as for graduate students.

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