Making Women Safer on Campus

University of Kentucky takes evidence-based approach to combating violence against women -- and early results are promising.
September 7, 2007

Violence against women is a pervasive problem on college campuses. But, anecdotes aside, just how pervasive of a problem is it at your college? What are the shady spots where women feel unsafe? What percentage of female students have been raped, physically assaulted or stalked on campus -- and what percentage of them went on to report it?

“The best way to approach this as a research institution was not to go to President [Lee T.] Todd and say, ‘I know you have a wife and daughter … and this is a national problem; I have a couple anecdotes,'” says Carol Jordan. As director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Research on Violence Against Women, she spearheaded the campus-specific "Women's Safety Study: 2004-2007." The university is using the results from the empirical research project to inform changes in its campus policies and safety programs. And those changes in turn appear to have women on campus feeling safer -- and more likely to report violence when it does occur.

“We determined from the outset we were going to undertake this as a translational research project," says Jordan. "Research, policy and practice are almost one word here.”

The University of Kentucky’s transparent, evidence-based approach to combating violence against women on campus began back in 2004 with a random telephone survey of 1,010 female graduate and undergraduate students. The questions, patterned after the National Violence Against Women Survey and the National College Women Sexual Victimization study, were deliberately specific, asking students if they had been victims of a number of specific offenses (including whether they had been raped, verbally coerced into having sex, physically assaulted, or forcibly touched), and if so, where? If on campus, where on campus? Was it a friend or a stranger? Did they tell anyone? If so, who? If not, why not?

Students also were asked to indicate how safe they felt on Kentucky's Lexington campus, and to specifically list spots they avoid for safety reasons.

The data were made public at the time, a significant step for the institution given the parent-unfriendly finding that 36.5 percent of women reported being victimized in some form while they were students at U.K. (obviously a problematic finding, Jordan says, but within national norms). Taking that data, a presidential advisory committee formulated a series of recommendations for targeted safety improvements. The university then devoted more than $1.2 million for improvements, which were largely informed by the data, Jordan says. The main areas of focus were:

  • Prevention education.
  • Intervention to encourage women who have been victimized to report it. Motivated by what Jordan called the “abysmal” 2004 finding that just 2.5 percent of University of Kentucky students who were rape victims had reported the incident to police (compared to 5 percent of college women nationally), university officials focused on making it easier for rape victims to get help and report an offense. “In a moment of crisis, she may just be calling once -- so we can’t mess that up," Jordan says.
  • Policy changes, including ensuring that the university is in full compliance with the federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act.
  • The physical safety of the campus. Officials prioritized areas identified as problem spots in the survey for extra lighting, landscaping and police patrols, and also created a “CATS path” -- an identified pathway across campus marked by paw prints.
  • Research.

Which brought the University of Kentucky’s Center for Research on Violence Against Women back to the latest item in its research agenda -- replicating the 2004 study, with 2,000 female students this time, to see what’s changed.

Some of the most dramatic results from the spring survey, released this week, are reflected in student attitudes: The percentage of women who reported avoiding places on campus out of fear dropped from 81.3 percent in 2004 to 77 percent, and the number of students who feel “very safe” has doubled in the last three years (although the percentage feeling unsafe has stayed at about 1 percent and has not significantly changed).

The percentage of victims who reported rape to the police jumped from 2.5 percent to 9.1 percent, with the proportion reporting sexual offenses more generally climbing from 1.5 to 5.7 percent. The percentage of women who reported being victimized in some form while enrolled at the university, 34.1 percent, has not changed significantly from the 2004 figure (36.5 percent), but Jordan is heartened to see a slight decrease in the number of women who experienced every type of victimization included on the survey. "We're trending in the right direction."

With the new data at her disposal, Jordan is assembling a “translational team” to start formulating recommendations for another round of improvements in response to the survey findings. Areas of possible action include putting special focus on educational efforts for women from small towns -- the university's data show that women from urban and rural areas alike are more likely to feel safe on campus than are women from towns with 2,500 to 25,000 people -- and enhancing access for women who do not want to report offenses to the police, but might still seek other university services.

“I think that’s an excellent way to go about it, in terms of knowing why students are not reporting, what places they’re avoiding on campus," says Alison Kiss, program director for the non-profit organization, Security On Campus.

“Generally we’ll see schools that will form violence prevention task forces and task forces within their community. We support that as well, but taking that a step further ... I definitely think it's very proactive."

“It is a progressive step for a university/college to administer such a survey and incorporate the results into its crime prevention/safety policy/programs,” Bonnie S. Fisher, a professor in the criminal justice division at the University of Cincinnati who has written about the sexual victimization of college women, wrote in an e-mail Thursday. “More institutions of higher education should follow what UK did in terms of designing a victimization/fear of crime [survey] ... and then developing evidence-based response.”


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