Today, Yale is launching its installment of one of the largest nationwide surveys on campus sexual assault.
Through a survey that is being distributed today by University Title IX Coordinator and Deputy Provost Stephanie Spangler, all students across Yale College and the graduate and professional schools will be invited to participate in the Association of American Universities’ campus sexual climate survey. The survey, which will compile data from 27 participating institutions across the United States and reach over 800,000 students, is intended to provide quantitative information about national trends, as well as patterns within individual universities, said Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd, who worked on the team that helped tailor the survey to the needs of participating campuses. This data will supplement the body of qualitative information that the University has already gathered on the topic, she added.
“The Campus Sexual Climate Survey will provide an unprecedented level of local quantitative data,” Boyd said. “Knowing so much more about student attitudes and experiences [in regards to sexual misconduct] will be enormously helpful as we work to assess and improve our policies, resources and strategies.”
The survey encompasses several topics related to campus sexual climate, including students’ perceptions of campus resources, their opinions of fellow students’ and administrators’ likely reactions to a report of misconduct and their own experiences with stalking, intimate partner violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault since arriving on campus, Boyd said. The survey will remain open until April 23, Boyd said, after which responses will no longer be accepted.
Responses will be sent directly to Westat, the independent research firm that designed the survey, and the data that is returned to universities in July will be kept entirely anonymous, said Barry Toiv, the AAU’s vice president for public affairs. When Yale receives its data, it will perform additional analyses of its own and release a report in the fall, Boyd said.
Yale has been collecting data of its own for some time before this survey. Spangler has been publishing semi-annual reports of sexual misconduct since January 2012. But, Spangler said, these reports can only provide “part of the picture,” as they only include complaints that were reported to the University. The AAU survey data will help administrators gain a clearer understanding of the various factors that facilitate or hinder reporting in the first place, she added.
“We have wanted to collect data for some time, and indeed, began working on a Yale-only survey last year,” she said. “[But] when the opportunity arose to collaborate with the AAU and other institutions, we eagerly pursued it, knowing that the collective expertise and resources would strengthen the project.”
According to Toiv, the survey’s design is based on a template developed by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. He added that, as part of the survey’s design, each of the 27 universities paid $87,500 to participate — part of which will be used to fund incentives, such as a lottery to maximize participation, and another portion will be used to compensate Westat.
A significant criticism of similar previous surveys has been their small sample sizes and low response rates. Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that has openly criticized the federal government’s approach to addressing campus sexual misconduct, pointed to the frequently cited statistic that one in five women will be the victim of sexual assault while they are in college. This statistic emerged from a 2007 study published by the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice that reached its conclusions from a survey of just two universities and, despite incentivizing participation with Amazon gift cards, still received low response rates — a fact that Cohn said makes him “deeply skeptical” of the results’ significance.
Other experts have raised concerns about this survey in particular. In a Jan. 27 letter addressed to university presidents and institutional review boards that had signed up to participate in the AAU survey, five psychology professors from various institutions proposed that the survey violated the guidelines of the 1978 Belmont Report, which outlines ethical principles that should be followed when conducting human research. The professors wrote that the survey’s design at the moment “[had] the potential to vastly underestimate the true scope of sexual victimization” on college campuses.
On Feb. 3, AAU President Hunter Rawlings responded to the letter in a public statement of his own, asserting that the draft they had seen was outdated and their criticisms were based on misinformation. Many changes had been made to the survey in the intervening period, he said.
“There is nothing ‘reckless’ about this survey,” he wrote. “It is a well-considered survey, informed by research and practice from the fields of sexual violence and survey methodology.”
Boyd also expressed confidence in the survey’s potential to produce high participation rates and yield powerful results. She cited Yale students’ enthusiastic participation in previous surveys that have gone out about sensitive topics such as alcohol use.
University President Peter Salovey also sent a campus-wide email on March 30 informing students of the survey and encouraging them to respond to this “critically important effort.”
“Over the last few years, we have made important progress together in creating a community that is safe and respectful,” he wrote. “But our work is not done.”
Yale is one of six Ivy League universities participating in the survey.