Students have until April 30 to complete a University survey on sexual misconduct.

Campus & Community

New student survey asks about sexual assault and misconduct

8 min read

Organizers assure participants that ‘we will take their responses seriously and react in accordance with what we learn’

On April 2, the University launched the Harvard Student Survey on Sexual Assault & Misconduct, a tool that will be used to continue to guide policies that encourage a healthy, safe, and nondiscriminatory environment across campus. (It remains open through April 30).

Throughout the spring, similar surveys are being administered at 32 additional institutions of higher education as part of a cohort convened by the Association of American Universities (AAU). This is the second time Harvard has participated in such a survey from the AAU; in 2015 the University played a leading role in articulating the need for, and helping to design, the study. Its results, driven by a large response rate, helped guide significant changes to the University’s Title IX Office, its policy and procedures, and the resources offered across Harvard.

The Gazette sat down with Deputy Provost Peggy Newell and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Strategy and Recruiting at Harvard Business School Kathleen McGinn, who chairs the steering committee focused on the survey’s successful implementation, to discuss the very real impact the 2015 survey has made on Harvard on the whole and why they hope this year’s version will provide a similar positive influence for change.


Peggy Newell and Kathleen McGinn

GAZETTE: This is now the second edition of a sexual assault and misconduct survey conducted at Harvard in collaboration with the American Association of Universities. The first, conducted in 2015, has already led to a significant increase in Title IX resources on campus. Give us a sense of the extent of the first survey’s impact.

NEWELL: In 2015, the community was very active in its response to the survey. Fifty-three percent of all of Harvard’s degree-seeking students responded — the most of any of the universities that participated as part of the AAU cohort — and this meaningful, engaged input was instrumental in helping the Title IX Office and the Office for Dispute Resolution to increase the size of their teams and create a wealth of new resources.

Some of those successes include an increase to more than 50 Title IX coordinators University-wide, up from 35 in 2014, and the establishment of a new student liaison committee that provides an opportunity for individuals across the University with a cross-section of perspectives to convene regularly and take stock of what Harvard is doing right, and where it needs to do more.

What’s changed at Harvard since the last AAU survey in 2015?

  • The Title IX Office and Office of Dispute Resolution became two distinct entities. This separation allowed ODR to handle cases that fell outside the scope of the university harassment policy. It also allowed the Title IX office to expand its educational programming, and work with local coordinators to respond to disclosures of harassment.
  • There are more than 50 Title IX coordinators University-wide, up from 35 in 2014.
  • A new student liaison committee was formed, engaging perspectives of students from across Harvard’s Schools. It is led by an Education Program Manager.
  • More than 25,000 members of the community have completed the University’s online Title IX training module. Last fall, all faculty and staff were required to complete a common baseline of training.
  • In-person bystander intervention training is now offered to students, staff, and faculty.
  • A new Title IX website was developed, plus new and enhanced resource materials, including an employee resource folder which outlines steps to support individuals who disclose an incident of sexual or gender-based harassment.

The Title IX Office also has been instrumental in implementing required training for all faculty, staff, and students online. At the time of the 2015 survey, we had not yet done an online training for students. Since then, we’ve offered 11, and in the past two years alone, more than 25,000 members of Harvard’s community have participated in such trainings, and many more have also trained in person. The office also introduced a novel bystander intervention training in 2018, and early responses to this resource have been positive.

Broadly, I truly believe it is critically important to have data to illustrate the scope of a problem in order to best target interventions with which to address it. The data collected from the 2015 survey has already made a significant impact here at Harvard. Now we need to learn more.

McGINN: Organizations need to be able to make decisions based on facts. Prior to 2015, we had very little information about the prevalence and nature of sexual and gender-based harassment and sexual misconduct on campus; we had very little information on how students responded to harassment and misconduct, unless they reported it; and we believed that the ratio of reporting to incidents was very low. We also had very little insight into what we weren’t doing. Where were the real holes in the resources available in the Harvard community?

Thanks to the first survey, we quickly realized that our resources for Title IX, dispute resolution, and mental health were insufficient. And so, as Peggy delineated, the University has put a lot of resources, money, people, and programming into these areas.

Responses to the first survey also showed the need to change the culture on campus. We can’t just work on our response to incidences of sexual and gender-based harassment and misconduct. We also need to reduce instances of this conduct happening in the first place. It’s important that not just our students but also our faculty and staff are aware of ways in which our culture is allowing Harvard to be a place where sexual and gender harassment are seen as somehow possible. In organizations, cultural messages about gender come from the makeup of leadership teams. At Harvard, Presidents Drew Faust and Larry Bacow have continued to appoint a more diverse set of leaders, including exemplary female role models, to this end.

GAZETTE: We’re of course currently in the midst of a follow-up survey, four years later. All degree-seeking students have until April 30 to complete it. Why is it so important to survey the community again, and what are your expectations for how this year’s survey can continue to provide positive change with regard to sexual misconduct and assault on campus?

McGINN: Student voices and student input are critical to getting our approaches to sexual and gender-based harassment right, and surveys provide the best way of broadly collecting students’ experiences and perceptions and preferences. It’s essential that every few years we check in with, in essence, a new population of students on campus and learn from them.

Also we are in a very different time at a societal level than we were in four years ago. #MeToo has revealed the extent to which sexual harassment and sexual violence are still painfully prevalent in our society, and it’s being talked about more and understood differently. The 2019 survey presents an opportunity for students to provide a voice against the backdrop of this movement, and we expect their responses will reflect that in a way that couldn’t have been true four years ago.

NEWELL: The 2019 survey also presents us with an opportunity to begin to evaluate some of the interventions we’ve introduced in the past four years, and see if they’re beginning to actually make an impact. It’s unrealistic to believe we’ll see dramatic change even in a four-year cycle, but over time, by taking a closer look at the data, I’m hopeful we’ll begin to understand where we’re making progress, and continue to develop ways of assuring that Harvard is a safe place for everyone to work, study, and thrive.

GAZETTE: What would you say to those who may be experiencing survey fatigue?

McGINN: I absolutely empathize with the idea of survey fatigue, but I see this as a real opportunity to be heard. This is a case in which the University is asking every student to tell us their opinion. We are listening. There is space in this year’s survey for open response, so that students can tell us anything they want us to know. Anything at all.

NEWELL: Our response rate in the previous survey was significant in the data provided, of course, but also in that it sent a message that our student body was serious about this issue. I believe there is a real danger that if our response rate is low this time around, the voice of our students will also be diminished.

It’s a mistake to think that ‘This issue doesn’t apply to me,’ or that ‘I can’t make a difference.’ It matters for all of us, as a community, and I can assure the members of Harvard’s community who complete the survey that we will take their responses seriously and react in accordance with what we learn.

I recognize how busy all of us are, especially this time of year, but, by committing to completing this survey, our students are participating in the collective process of making Harvard a safer, healthier, more inclusive place to be. I’m grateful for all of their valued time and input.

All degree-seeking candidates at Harvard are encouraged to take The Harvard Student Survey on Sexual Assault & Misconduct. Survey responses are completely confidential.