In tandem with the release of findings from a new national survey of college and university students about sexual assault, the University’s Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault made Harvard’s data public Monday, including results that paint a disturbing picture of sexual misconduct here on campus.
In a 13-page letter to President Drew Faust, Task Force Chairman Steven E. Hyman said that the survey, which was administered to nearly 20,000 degree-seeking students enrolled at Harvard College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), and the 10 professional Schools last spring, makes clear that sexual assault is “a serious and widespread problem that profoundly violates the values and undermines the educational goals of this University.”
Women at Harvard College appear especially vulnerable to sexual assault, the survey said. More than 60 percent of women in the College’s Class of ’15 responded to the survey. Of those, 31 percent said they had experienced some sort of unwanted sexual contact at Harvard. Ninety women characterized that contact as what the survey termed “nonconsensual completed or attempted penetration involving physical force, incapacitation or both,” the most serious category of misconduct. This group comprises 16 percent of female College seniors.
A total of 17.9 percent of undergraduate women who identified as Lesbian or Gay, Bisexual, Asexual, Questioning and Not Listed (LGBAQN) at Harvard reported experiencing some form of nonconsensual sexual contact by force or incapacitation during the 2014-2015 academic year, the highest rate of all Harvard student cohorts. This contact ranged from completed or attempted penetration to sexual touching. Undergraduate heterosexual women were the next-highest group with 12 percent reporting such contact, and LGBAQN undergraduate men reported 10.9 percent.
The students least likely to experience unwanted sexual contact were heterosexual men at GSAS and the professional Schools, at 0.8 percent. Just 2.7 percent of undergraduate heterosexual men and 2.9 percent of LGBAQN men at GSAS or at the professional Schools said they had any nonconsensual contact.
Faust finds results “deeply disturbing”
In an email to students, faculty, and staff, Faust called the survey results “deeply disturbing” and said the findings reinforce the “alarming frequency” with which Harvard students experience sexual assault, and she called for a Monday evening meeting to discuss the results with them.
“All of us share the obligation to create and sustain a community of which we can all be proud, a community whose bedrock is mutual respect and concern for one another. Sexual assault is intolerable, and we owe it to one another to confront it openly, purposefully and effectively,” Faust wrote.
The survey was part of an effort led by the Association of American Universities (AAU), a consortium of 62 research universities, to better understand the nature and pervasiveness of sexual assault, harassment, and other misconduct on college campuses. More than 150,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students at 27 private and public research universities across the country took part, making it one of the largest surveys of its kind.
Overall, 19.3 percent of eligible students responded to the AAU survey, though rates at each institution varied depending on the type of school and size. At Harvard, 53 percent of the eligible students participated, the highest rate among the universities surveyed. Faust said she took that as a “positive sign” that students recognize sexual assault as a serious issue.
Harvard fared slightly better than the averages reported by students in the national survey aggregate. Four percent of Harvard students surveyed said they had at least one incident of nonconsensual sexual contact last year. Additionally, 1.4 percent said the contact was completed, or involved attempted penetration by use of force, incapacitation, or both. Nationally, 6.5 percent of students reported some form of unwanted of sexual contact, while 2.4 percent reported penetration or attempted penetration by force or incapacitation.
Last April, the Harvard task force asked students to complete an online survey about sexual assault. Students were asked a series of questions about various kinds of sexual misconduct that they may have encountered while they were enrolled at the University, regardless of where or when the incident took place, or whether the perpetrator was part of the Harvard community. The survey focused on nonconsensual sexual activity conducted through the use of physical force, incapacitation, or both.
The survey found that sexual harassment is a problem for women students all across the University, with 72.7 percent of undergraduate women reporting an incident of harassment during their time at Harvard, while fewer than 62 percent of undergraduate women in the broader 27-school survey reported such incidents.
Almost half of Harvard’s female graduate and professional School students reported being harassed, and 21.8 percent of these women said a faculty member had sexually harassed them.
“We must commit ourselves to being a better community than the one the survey portrays,” Faust wrote in her email. “It is up to all of us to ensure that Harvard is a realization of our ideals, not our fears.”
Also in response, Rakesh Khurana, Danoff Dean of Harvard College, announced that the College would host three town-hall style discussions with staff from the Office of Sexual Assault and Prevention this week.
“We have it in our power to make Harvard better,” he said in a message to students. “This is a moment for all of us to take stock of what we stand for as a community” and to make the necessary changes to better Harvard and the world.
At a 90-minute meeting Monday evening before an overflow crowd at the Science Center, Faust and Khurana answered questions from students following a presentation of the survey results by David Laibson ’88, the Robert I. Goldman Professor of Economics. Laibson, who serves on the task force and chairs the Economics Department, was closely involved in the survey’s design and analysis.
As an institution of higher education, learning from these survey results “is something we are especially equipped to do,” Faust said.
“We want to use those skills to figure out how can we combat this, how can we make it stop, and how can we help the individuals who are trapped in these terrible, terrible circumstances from ever having to have those kinds of things happen to them again. How can we help future students not have to confront the same realities?” she said. “Let’s use every tool that we have to make this a better place.”
Students attending the community meeting asked that the University offer more opportunities to gather in both large and smaller groups not just to discuss their views about sexual assault policy initiatives and programs, but also to comfortably share their experiences in the hopes of learning more about the underlying issues that contribute to such traumatic incidents. Many expressed support for better and faster access to mental health services and the creation of “safe spaces” so that final clubs events were not a focus of undergraduate social life.
Noting the essential value that students derive by socializing and learning from Harvard’s diverse student population, Khurana appeared to signal that single-sex entities like final clubs may face greater scrutiny in the near future.
“Any organization that attaches itself, recognized or unrecognized, to Harvard, recruits from Harvard students and enjoys any sort of status by being affiliated with the College has to be in synchronization with the mission of the College,” he said.
Alcohol use a major risk factor
Unsurprisingly, the use of drugs and alcohol as a “tactic” or precursor to sexual assault on college campuses accounts for a “significant” percentage of reported incidents, the AAU survey found.
At Harvard, when students were asked if anyone had been consuming alcohol before an incident of completed or attempted penetration when incapacitation was a factor, 89 percent of respondents said they had been drinking, while 79 percent said the perpetrator had been drinking.
“The percent of alcohol is so high that prevention efforts are not likely to succeed if we do not, as part of our final report, suggest approaches to decreasing the harm associated with student drinking,” Hyman wrote in his letter to Faust.
More than 75 percent of Harvard College women reported the assaults took place in student Houses, while at least 15 percent said they occurred at what the survey categorized as “single-sex organizations that were not fraternities or sororities,” a category that most closely aligns at Harvard with the non-affiliated final clubs.
Not serious enough to report?
One reason why reliable information about the pervasiveness of sexual assault on college campuses is so hard to come by, analysts say, is that, historically, few students choose to report such incidents to someone in law enforcement, at a university, or at another organization. The AAU survey bears out this unsettling truth. Just 5 to 28 percent of students nationally said they had reported an incident, depending on the type of misconduct. Among those who said they did not report an incident, the most common reason given was a belief that it was not serious enough to warrant action. Other explanations included that the student felt “too embarrassed, ashamed, or that it would be too emotionally difficult” to report the incident, or that she or he “did not think anything would be done about it.”
On that score, Harvard appears no different. Here, 80 percent of female undergraduates who said they had been penetrated as a result of incapacitation did not formally report the assault, while 69 percent who said they were penetrated by the use of physical force did not report the instances.
Fifty-four percent of Harvard student respondents who said they “had seen or heard someone acting in a sexually violent or harassing way” did nothing to intervene. A full 80 percent who said they had seen a “drunk person heading for a sexual encounter” indicated that they did not take any action.
Hyman said the survey results are “entirely congruent” with testimony that the task force has heard since its formation. “The fact that Harvard data is quite similar to that of other private universities within the AAU gives little comfort,” he wrote to Faust. Noting the “deeply ingrained” nature of sexual assault, Hyman wrote, “It reminds us that we cannot simply make and implement a series of recommendations and consider that we have done our work.”
Messages on assault not being received
Despite initiating several efforts in the last two years to better confront sexual assault on campus, such as the adoption of the University-wide Title IX policy, the establishment of the Office for Dispute Resolution to investigate misconduct, and the addition of 50 Title IX coordinators to work across Harvard on such issues, many students said they are not well-informed about where to get support, how to report sexual assault or misconduct, how the University defines sexual assault and misconduct, or what happens after a report is made.
Just 24 percent of Harvard students said they were very or extremely knowledgeable about where to go for help, and only 20 percent said they were very or extremely knowledgeable about where to report an incident. When asked what happens after a report is filed, 82 percent said the process wasn’t entirely clear to them, and only 15 percent said they fully understood what constitutes sexual assault or misconduct at Harvard. In all four areas, the percentage of Harvard students who said they were very or extremely knowledgeable was consistently smaller than the national survey average.
“Clearly, we must do more,” Faust wrote. “University leaders — starting with the president, the provost, and the deans — bear a critical part of the responsibility for shaping the climate and offering resources to prevent sexual assault and [to] respond when it does occur.”
To that end, Faust has asked the deans from each School to prepare “school-specific plans” that begin to facilitate community discussion, engagement, and action surrounding the survey findings.
The task force and the University’s Institutional Research Office will further analyze the survey data to better understand the full results. In January, the task force will submit a report and make recommendations to Faust.
Among the areas identified as meriting further scrutiny: the higher rate of sexual assaults reported by LGBAQN-identifying students; the alarming frequency of alcohol as a factor in such assaults; the specific campus locations where incidents most often take place; and the low percentage of students, particularly undergraduates, who say they know where to get help or feel confident that the University will respond to their needs.
Confidence in the University’s ability to handle sexual assault cases vigorously and appropriately varies widely.
Although 61 percent of all Harvard students think the University is “very or extremely likely” to take a report of sexual assault seriously, only 43 percent of female undergraduates at the College and at the Division of Continuing Education said they feel that way.
Asked if they thought the University would conduct a fair investigation of any reported assault claim, 41 percent of Harvard students said they were only “somewhat” certain officials would do the job properly, while 29 percent said the process was “very” likely to be fair. Female undergraduates were a bit more skeptical, with 45 percent saying a fair investigation was “somewhat” likely.
But when asked how likely University officials were to take action against an offender, 46 percent of female undergraduates said they had little or no confidence that they would. In addition, 84 percent expressed some doubt any action would be taken. Overall, 68 percent of Harvard students surveyed were dubious of follow-through against offenders.
The national survey was designed to provide university communities, federal policymakers, and educational researchers with greater insight into the scope, frequency, and nature of sexual assault and misconduct on American college campuses, the AAU said in a press statement issued Monday.
The survey results come amid growing pressure on colleges and universities from the Obama administration, Congress, the Department of Education, and activists to codify and make transparent their procedures for investigating, disciplining, and reporting sexual assault cases, as well as the case outcomes.
Other participating Ivy League schools included Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University. Public universities involved included the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Texas at Austin, among others.