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The Association of American Universities last week became among the first higher education groups in Washington to back the concept of anonymous surveys to gauge student views about the prevalence of sexual violence on campus.

The association of elite research institutions said it plans to hire a research firm to develop and conduct campus climate surveys at some of its member universities.

Barry Toiv, a spokesman for the AAU, said this week that it was too early to tell which of the group’s 60 U.S. members would participate in the survey since the deadline for joining is December 1.

The survey, which has not yet been developed, is expected to be conducted in April with the aggregated results published next fall, according to an AAU memo to university presidents, which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed. The document lays out an "aggressive" timeline for completing the project so as 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."

It will cost institutions "about $85,000" each to participate in the survey, according to the memo. 

Campus climate surveys have been among the more contentious proposals in the debate in recent months over how to address campus sexual assaults.

Some higher education groups have criticized the notion of requiring colleges to conduct the surveys and publish the results, as a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has proposed. That bill, co-sponsored by Senator Claire McCaskill, would require colleges to direct their students to fill out an online survey administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The results would then be made publicly available with the goal of allowing students and families to compare the data among institutions. 

The Senate is not expected to take any action on McCaskill's legislation during the current lame-duck session, but the bill, which has the backing of some conservative Republicans, is likely to be re-introduced next year.

Part of the AAU’s goal in voluntarily conducting the surveys, the results of which will be published only in the aggregate, is to fend off such a federal effort, according to the group’s president, Hunter Rawlings. Rawlings said his member universities were concerned about a “one-size-fits-all survey that would provide potentially misleading data, given the extraordinary diversity of higher education in our country.”

McCaskill’s office, which has previously criticized higher education leaders for their handling of sexual assault issues, on Monday praised the AAU’s campus climate survey initiative.

“We think it’s terrific that the Association of American Universities is showing real leadership,” a McCaskill spokeswoman, Sarah Feldman, said in a statement. “Climate surveys are agreed to be one of the strongest tools for understanding sexual violence, an essential step in curbing such violence, which is why such a survey is a central piece of our bipartisan bill. As long as best practices are employed, we think this kind of initiative can only be positive -- and we think other higher education groups could take a lesson from this kind of commitment.”

Some victims’ advocates, though, were more skeptical of the effort.

“It smacks of institutional protectionism,” said Laura Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice. She said that the group’s decision to provide the survey results only in the aggregate rather than at the institution level showed the need for federal legislation mandating that colleges use the surveys to show the public the full extent of sexual violence problems on their campuses.

Dunn said that while some federal campus safety rules, like training requirements, should provide flexibility for institutions depending on their size and mission, campus climate surveys need to have some baseline uniformity.

“Gender violence doesn’t change whether you’re at a vocational school or at a four-year college,” she said. “Uniformity is necessary for national comparison. As a research method, that’s pretty basic. And that’s why schools are fighting [federal efforts to require surveys], because they don’t want comparison.”

A group of researchers this week also raised concerns about AAU's effort. Sixteen scholars who study sexual violence sent a letter to research university presidents on Monday, urging the campus leaders not to sign on to the AAU's plan to conduct a climate survey.

Among the researchers' objections is the fact that the survey "is proprietary and therefore not available for scientific examination." They also said that the practical value of the survey would be limited because the AAU plans to make public only aggregated data of the survey's results, not the campus-level data needed for comparison among institutions.

Jennifer J. Freyd, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who co-wrote the letter, expressed concern that universities are being asked to make the important decision of selecting a climate survey without seeing the survey or being able to meaningfully customize it. 

“This is really not in the spirit of how science should work,” said Freyd, who founded a faculty group aimed at combating sexual assault and previously sparred with her own campus administration over campus climate surveys.

Freyd also criticized the AAU’s effort for a lack of transparency over how it will design the survey and a lack of input from scientists who study sexual victimization on campuses.  

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

She said that requiring carefully-designed nationally comparative surveys is important because it takes a away the incentive for colleges to minimize, in one way or another, the prevalence of sexual violence on their campus. 

Although campus climate surveys are routinely required on a case-by-case basis by the Department of Education as part of its resolution agreements with colleges that have been accused of mishandling sexual violence cases, the surveys are not widely used across American campuses.  

Some state lawmakers in Maryland last year sought to require colleges to conduct climate surveys. But it was shot down at least in part by objections from universities in the state.

Meanwhile, in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo last month ordered all State University of New York campuses to conduct uniform climate surveys as part of his package of executive actions that sought to crack down on sexual assault in the SUNY system. The University of New Hampshire has long conducted campus climate surveys.

Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year implored colleges to implement the surveys.

"I challenge every college and university, if they are really serious about protecting students, to conduct anonymous surveys," Biden said. "They have a moral responsibility to know what is happening on their campus."

The AAU said that its voluntary survey will be based on some of the White House’s recommendations for how to conduct such a survey. Indeed its solicitation for proposals for a research firm, also obtained this week by Inside Higher Ed, included a list of the administration's best practices for climate surveys. The group has selected the research firm Westat to conduct the surveys. 

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