Declining the AAU Survey

More than one-third of research university group's members won't participate in its study of campus climate related to sexual assault. 

January 13, 2015

More than two dozen of the nation's top research universities have declined an offer by the Association of American Universities to anonymously survey their students about the prevalence of sexual assault on campus.

Twenty-six of the AAU’s 60 U.S. members told Inside Higher Ed this week that they had decided against participating in the association’s survey project, which some victims’ advocates and sexual violence researchers had criticized.

The universities gave various reasons for not participating, and several said that they would be designing and conducting their own surveys.

The AAU announced in November that it was contracting with a research firm, Westat, to develop and implement a campus “climate survey” for any of its members institutions that wanted to participate. The association said that one goal of the project was to fend off Congressional efforts to require universities to annually survey their students about the prevalence of sexual assault. And one reason that some in Congress have pushed for broad surveys -- as opposed to the campus-by-campus approach some AAU members are now embracing -- is to allow for comparisons of how institutions are doing.

Universities had to decide within the past several weeks whether they wanted to pay about $85,000 to participate.

The AAU’s survey had been criticized by several dozen scholars who study sexual violence as well as some victims’ advocates for, among other things, not pledging to release campus-by-campus data, but to share only aggregate data. Critics also said the process lacked transparency and input from enough scientists who study sexual assaults on campuses.  

Princeton University is one of the institutions that declined to participate. The decision was made by President Christopher Eisgruber following the unanimous recommendation of a university sexual misconduct committee and it was first reported by The Daily Princetonian.

But that recommendation was not motivated by some of the criticisms of the survey, according to Michelle Minter, Princeton’s vice provost for institutional equity and diversity, who co-chaired the committee.

Minter said in an interview that the committee was mostly concerned that the university was required to tell the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights about its plans to conduct a climate survey by this week. Federal officials required last year that Princeton conduct a survey after finding that the university violated Title IX in mishandling sexual assault cases.

“There were too many remaining unknowns of how the AAU effort was likely to unfold,” Minter said. “We believe it is likely to unfold well, but we didn't have quite enough information at this point.”

She added that the university may participate in subsequent years and believes that “peer comparisons would be very helpful for the long term.”

Several other institutions, like the University of Rochester, said that they were opting out but still planned to do their own survey.

“We are designing our own survey so that we can tailor the questions to our own needs,” Sara Miller, a spokeswoman for the University of Rochester, said in an email.

Penn State declined to participate in the AAU survey but a university spokeswoman, Lisa M. Powers, said that it was eyeing its own survey for this spring as well as collaboration with other universities.

Among the other universities not participating in the survey are: Boston University; Emory University; Johns Hopkins University; Duke University; Georgia Tech; Rutgers; Northwestern University; the State University of New York at Buffalo and Stony Brook; the University of California at Berkeley, Irvine, Davis, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara; Vanderbilt University; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Chicago; the University of Kansas; Brandeis University; Tulane University; Stanford University; the University of Iowa; and Rice University.
Not all of the group’s members responded this week to a request for comment about the status of their participation. A spokesperson at both Yale and Columbia declined to say whether either of those universities had decided to participate in the survey. 

Barry Toiv, spokesman for the Association of American Universities, said that the group had not yet released a complete list of which universities were on board because some were still finalizing their agreements to participate.

“A number of institutions are electing not to participate,” he said. “But we’ve got a broad cross section of our universities. We’re in good shape. The survey development is on schedule.”

The surveys, Toiv said, will begin at participating universities in April. Although the AAU plans to release the aggregate data collected from all campuses, it will be up to individual universities to decide whether they make public their own survey results.

Several universities who have decided to take part in the initiative said they weren’t sure exactly which information they would release.

"It's fully our intention to make known what that climate survey finds," said Jason Cody, a spokesman for Michigan State University. But, he said, the university had not decided whether it will publish the data from each question or summaries of them.

A spokesman for the University of Pennsylvania, Ron Ozio, said that institution would “make data public in a way that secures the anonymity of the respondents.”

Among the other universities that said they planned to participate in the surveys were: Iowa State University; Texas A&M University; the University of Wisconsin at Madison; the University of Missouri; Washington University in St. Louis; and Cornell University. The University of Michigan is also on board, according to The Detroit News. And Harvard University planned to participate as well, according to a November report in The Crimson. 

This story has been updated to include additional names of universities participating or not participating in the sexual assault survey. 


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