Sexual Misconduct at Elite Universities Surveyed

Association of American Universities campus climate survey finds students are more aware of reporting sexual assaults and seeking help.

October 15, 2019
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Rates of sexual assault at 33 leading research institutions slightly increased during the past four years, according to the findings of a new survey report released today. But the people most likely to be victims of such assaults are more aware of how to report them and how to access help than they were four years ago.

The Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct, released by the Association of American Universities, was the second such report by the organization. The first was in 2015.

Of the 33 elite institutions where the survey was conducted, 21 also distributed the 2015 climate survey and were able to see results over a four-year period, according to the report. The survey of 181,752 undergraduate and graduate students found no significant changes in sexual assault rates, and women and non-cisgender students continue to be more likely to be victimized by sexual misconduct than men. Respondents said they were more aware of reporting mechanisms and resources than in 2015, but the reporting of incidents remained low.

The AAU survey is not definitive or illustrative of all sexual misconduct in higher education, because it only covers a specific type of institution, said Kimberlee Eberle-Sudré, AAU’s director of policy research. But it is the most broadly distributed sexual misconduct climate survey that exists to date, said the association's president, Mary Sue Coleman.

“We believe in the validity of the work that we’ve done, but we’re not trying to say that this is true everywhere,” Coleman said. “This is the research that needs to be done before throwing around numbers.”

Institutions that conducted the survey include Boston University, Brown University, the California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, Case Western Reserve University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, Iowa State University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, Rice University, Stanford University, Texas A&M University, Johns Hopkins University, Ohio State University, the University of Arizona, the University of Chicago, the University of Kansas, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Florida, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, the University of Missouri, the University of Oregon, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Rochester, the University of Southern California, the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University, Washington University in St. Louis and Yale University.

All 33 institutions will release their own survey data in conjunction with Tuesday’s release of the aggregate report later in the week, Eberle-Sudré said. The survey was prepared and administered by Westat, a research corporation, in order to anonymize data and ensure respondents were not deterred by the fear that their institution would see individual responses, Eberle-Sudré said.

Westat’s full data will be made available to “legitimate researchers” one year after only being available to participating institutions, Eberle-Sudré said. The AAU faced criticism from sexual assault researchers in 2015 for not making the data open for university comparisons. Sexual violence is traditionally an issue that is hidden from view, and the way data are collected on it should not be, said Jennifer J. Freyd, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and campus climate researcher, who co-authored a 2014 letter encouraging university presidents not to participate in the AAU climate survey.

Some of the researchers’ criticisms were addressed in the new survey's methodology -- participating universities can add custom questions that look into specific places on campus where sexual assault occurs, or include questions that analyze bystander intervention, Eberle-Sudré said. Researchers also implemented trigger warnings into the survey, after survivor advocacy groups were critical of the language used to describe sexual assaults.

“There was a long process of looking at feedback from campuses and respondents -- was this question triggering, would we still get the results if we ask it a different way,” Eberle-Sudré said. “Sometimes just getting the notice of the survey was triggering, so students could opt out on the first communication.”

The survey also found that the overall rate of nonconsensual sexual contact did not change significantly from 2015, according to the report. Coleman said this finding was “vexing” because of the attention and resources universities have dedicated to preventing campus sexual assault.

Respondents demonstrated that they are more aware of what sexual misconduct is and the resources available to them at their institutions, but only 15 percent of victims got involved with a university-provided program or reported their experience, according to the AAU report. Victims were most likely to seek counseling services or get help at campus health centers.

One explanation for the low reporting and program participation rates is that victims are doubtful they will be believed when they report, Coleman said. In survey responses, students were also likely to say they did not report because they “could handle it myself” or the misconduct was “not serious enough.” If victims were not physically harmed or believed they did not have the time to go through with an investigation of their accusation, they were less likely to report, Eberle-Sudré said, adding that there is room for improvements in “postreporting.”

The 2019 report also separated responses between undergraduate and graduate students, whose varying college and university experiences and environments contribute to differences in the type of sexual misconduct perpetrated against them, Eberle-Sudré said.

“In 2015, we talked a lot about the assaults,” Eberle-Sudré said noting that assaults were still prevalent in the 2019 survey, “but we start to see other pieces happening on our campuses.”

More than 26 percent of undergraduate female respondents reported nonconsensual sexual contact, while nearly 11 percent of graduate and professional women did, according to the 2019 report. Graduate students were most likely to be sexually harassed by a faculty member or instructor -- a quarter of these students who reported being harassed said the perpetrator was an instructor or faculty member.

Undergraduate respondents were much more vulnerable to sexual assault in their first year of college, which is not seen for graduate students, Coleman said. More than 16 percent of freshman students surveyed reported they were sexually assaulted versus about 11 percent of students in their fourth year or above, the report states. This can be valuable information for institutions to focus prevention and reporting methods on freshman students, Coleman said.

“If an institution is going to concentrate their resources, they can do a better job during their first year and can lower rates that way,” Coleman said.

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