“The first step in solving a problem is to name it and know the extent of it -- and a campus climate survey is the best way to do that.” -- The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault
Campus climate surveys have become an important tool for universities in the battle against sexual assault on campus.
The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, in its April 2014 report “Not Alone,” gave the higher education community a strong hint by writing: “We urge schools to show they’re serious about the problem by conducting the survey next year.”
The task force characterizes regular climate surveys as “a best-practice response to campus sexual assault” and recommends that schools use them to examine the prevalence and incidence of sexual assault on campus, and to assess students’ perceptions of a university’s response to sexual assault.
In the wake of the task force’s report, although climate surveys are not yet required by law, colleges would be ill advised to ignore the drumbeat of support for climate surveys by the federal government.
Here are five things you should know about campus climate surveys.
1. They Will Be Mandated. The task force’s suggestion that schools conduct climate surveys is one of several signals that surveys soon will be required as part of a Title IX/Clery Act compliance program.
Beginning with the University of Montana in 2013, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has made conducting climate surveys a standard requirement in resolution agreements it enters into with schools to resolve Title IX complaints. In addition, a bipartisan group of legislators recently reintroduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, S 590, HR 1310. This bill would require schools to administer “a standardized online survey of students regarding their experiences with sexual violence and harassment” every two years.
Thus, whether de jure or de facto, institutions can count on soon being required to conduct climate surveys.
2. Model Surveys Are Being Developed. The task force included a detailed campus climate survey tool kit with the “Not Alone” report, including sample questions, and selected Rutgers University to pilot the survey. Rutgers has been posting what its team has been learning here and plans to publish a revised survey suitable for widespread use.
The Association of American Universities, an organization of 60 U.S. research universities, is conducting its own survey with 28 members, which will be identical for each participating campus except for five questions that will address campus-specific issues.
Since each campus has a unique culture, it is important to keep in mind that the examples developed by other schools and groups are just that -- examples. Some institutions opted out of the AAU survey because they preferred to conduct a survey tailored to their particular cultures.
Another institution, the University of Alaska, made sure to include questions addressing online harassment in its March 2015 survey, due to its large online-learning community. Colleges with limited resources can begin with the task force’s sample survey (or another model) and adapt the questions to their unique settings to assure the most meaningful results possible.
3. Participation Is a Challenge. CASA would require schools to have an “adequate, random and representative sample size of students” complete the biannual campus surveys. This vague standard may be challenging; an informal review of the results of recent school surveys indicates that 19-25 percent of students participated. Obvious questions exist about whether the students who participate represent a true cross section or are motivated by personal experience with sexual misconduct.
Institutions will have to work creatively to promote the surveys to an often apathetic student body (some designs include incentives for participation, such as nominal gift cards and drawings for larger prizes).
4. How the Surveys Will Be Used Remains an Open Question. A poll of 620 college presidents conducted by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup in 2014 revealed discomfort with mandated surveys, which is likely grounded in several factors.
First, climate surveys are still works in progress (only 21 percent of the presidents indicated that their schools had constructed a survey within the previous two years), and their validity and reliability remain unproven.
Second, as expressed by the American Council on Education in comments on CASA last year, it is unclear for what purpose a climate survey would be used: “Is it intended as a consumer information tool, an institutional improvement tool, an enforcement mechanism or some combination of all three?” The answer to this question could have a substantial impact on how a survey is designed and on how schools and others react to its results.
Underscoring concerns about how results would be used, CASA would require surveys to include questions about how reports of sexual violence were handled, and results to be published by the individual institutions and the Department of Education.
The publication of survey results could have wide-ranging implications -- from reputational harm to enforcement activity. But one can legitimately question whether, for example, negative responses in an anonymous survey with limited participation would truly reflect a systemic problem or an isolated instance.
Other questions relate to the degree, if any, that OCR and courts would consider schools to be “on notice” of a problem reflected in survey results, and the validity of side-by-side comparisons of schools using different survey instruments.
Ideally, these questions will be addressed before surveys are mandated but, as written, CASA would require schools to complete a survey within one year of its enactment.
5. Climate Surveys May Uncover Blind Spots. Despite the potential pitfalls with mandated climate surveys, they can generate valuable data points for schools looking to learn about the success of their efforts to combat sexual violence.
For example, in late January, George Washington University released the results of a 2014 survey that revealed that 80 percent of the students responding did not know how to contact the Title IX coordinator or the university’s sexual assault response team.
The survey results may simply reflect a general challenge in communicating sexual violence resource information to students -- the information might not be important to students until it is needed.
Still, this eye-opening result gives GW valuable insight and will encourage it to communicate the information through additional or alternative means.
Consider these five issues as you plan for your own campus climate survey.
Scott A. Coffina is a partner in Drinker Biddle & Reath’s white collar criminal defense and corporate investigations practice group. Rachel M. Share is a litigation associate at Drinker Biddle & Reath.