Five of seven Ivy League schools reported higher rates of sexual assault than the average rate across 27 participating colleges, according to the Association of American Universities’ survey of sexual climates that was released this week.
Among its peer institutions in the Ivy League, Yale had the highest rate of sexual assaults on undergraduate women, with 28.1 percent of the respondents reporting an experience of “nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching involving physical force or incapacitation.” This number is five percentage points higher than the average rate of 23.1 percent across the 27 schools that participated in the April survey.
The Ivy League school that fared the best was Cornell, at 22.6 percent. But this rate was almost double the prevalence reported by the California Institute of Technology, which had the lowest in the AAU survey. Seven other participating schools also had lower rates than Cornell. Princeton was the only Ivy League school that did not participate in the survey.
Attention to sexual misconduct on Ivy League campuses is not new: The Ancient Eight have long faced national scrutiny for the way they handle complaints of sexual misconduct, partially due to their visibility in the world of higher education. This national scrutiny seems to have pervaded the campuses of many Ivy League schools — Yale was the subject of a Department of Education Office of Civil Rights investigation in 2011, and Harvard Law School just reached a resolution agreement with the OCR in December. This scrutiny — which has also led to increased programming and education programs on these campuses — has possibly led to increased identification of sexual assault, according to Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy.
The three Ivy League schools that reported the highest rates of sexual assault — Yale, Dartmouth and Harvard, respectively — actually had the highest student participation rates in the AAU survey. At Yale and Harvard, over 50 percent of students participated, and just over 40 percent participated at Dartmouth. The average response rate across the 27 participating universities, meanwhile, was 19.3 percent.
In emails to their respective institutions, both Harvard President Drew Faust and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway wrote that high response rates were positive indicators of student engagement on the topic of sexual misconduct.
Lake speculated that increased conversation about the topic — partially resulting from the Ivy League’s emphasis on training and education — could make students at elite institutions more sensitive to behaviors that might constitute sexual misconduct, thus contributing to the higher reported rates of assault. Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd acknowledged that such an outcome was conceivable, but impossible to prove with existing data.
Lake emphasized that the higher numbers of reported assaults at elite institutions are not necessarily statistically significant discrepancies, noting that most schools reported rates of sexual assault in the same decile as at Yale. Moreover, according to some administrators and experts in higher education law, there are multiple causes for hope within the otherwise concerning data about Yale.
For example, although overall numbers for Yale women who have experienced penetration due to force or incapacitation are higher than the AAU aggregate, when the numbers are broken down by class year, freshmen actually reported a lower prevalence of such assault than the survey average.
A possible cause for this difference, according to Boyd, is that many University resources implemented to address sexual misconduct — such as the 2011 creation of the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, or the Communication and Consent Educators program — may have begun to effect a broader, cultural change across campus. Those effects, though, would likely have been felt more by members of the class of 2018 than the class of 2015.
These programs may actually lead other schools — which may have reported lower rates of sexual assault on their campuses — to look to Yale for guidance in developing programming, according to Senior Advisor to the President Martha Highsmith.
“We have considerable expertise in-house, and some of our programs are models for other schools,” she said. “I suspect others will be calling us for help on other campuses as well.”
In fact, Cornell just recently introduced “social consultant” positions on its own campus, which are modeled after the role CCEs play at Yale.
As more schools implement training programs, Lake said, the number of students reporting sexual misconduct will probably rise as students become more aware of what constitutes inappropriate behavior — and then when the numbers begin to fall, the Ivies will be the group leading the way.
“Given the incredible levels of intervention that are coming in at Yale and Harvard, it would be unlikely that these systems wouldn’t be impactful,” he said. “I think Yale’s experience on sexual misconduct will be a case study in the future for how to handle cases like this.”