Peggy Newell (left) and Kathleen McGinn.

Peggy Newell (left) and Kathleen McGinn.

File photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer; courtesy photo

Campus & Community

Harvard asks students about sexual assault and misconduct in third survey since 2015

Survey open April 2 through May 2 for degree-seeking students

6 min read

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and on April 2, the University launched the Higher Education Sexual Misconduct and Awareness (HESMA) Survey. This is the third in a series of surveys that the University has used to understand and address issues related to sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment on campus. (The first two were held in 2015 and 2019.) Harvard is a member of a 10-university consortium that is administering the HESMA Survey. 

The survey will be open through May 2, and all degree-seeking students can access it by scanning the QR code displayed on materials around campus, visiting, or following instructions emailed to them by Westat, the independent research firm conducting the survey. To encourage participation, all students who complete the survey will receive a $20 gift card, with an option to donate the funds to select nonprofit organizations.

To learn how these surveys have changed sexual assault and misconduct prevention practices on campus, why it is critical for all eligible students to participate, and how the results can impact campus resources going forward, the Gazette spoke with Deputy Provost Peggy Newell and Kathleen McGinn, the survey’s principal investigator and the Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Is this survey the same as the ones from 2015 and 2019?

McGinn: The core of the survey is almost identical to the 2015 and 2019 surveys because we want to be able to compare the data across all three surveys. That allows us to learn where students’ experiences have gotten better over time and where they may have remained constant or gotten worse. With data from all three surveys, we can quantify the effects of changes Harvard has made and move forward with steps suggested by survey responses.

Newell: Beyond the core survey, we added questions to ensure that we meet key requirements mandated by Massachusetts law. Students, in particular Harvard students and alumni, were critical in supporting and advocating for Massachusetts campus sexual assault legislation, which requires every higher education institution in Massachusetts to administer a campus climate survey of all students every four years. The HESMA Survey continues our ongoing commitment to engage in climate surveys, and thanks to the hard work of those Harvard students, all Massachusetts colleges and universities will also gather this important data. 

Why is this survey so important?

Newell: It’s very important because it helps us measure what’s happening on our campus, not only the incidence of sexual assault and sexual harassment, but also how well we’re doing in addressing problems that we have on campus. For example, we’re asking participants about their knowledge of available resources and their experiences with accessing resources and University processes designed to address issues of sexual harassment and misconduct on our campus. The results from the HESMA Survey will give us very useful insight that we can use to improve our efforts in this area, with the goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating sex-based harassment and discrimination.

McGinn: The survey is one way for us to be proactive instead of reactive, which is critical. Unfortunately, sexual harassment and sexual assault continue to be a reality of campuses across the U.S. If we don’t have a way to understand what’s going on in terms of sexual harassment and sexual assault, we can only be reactive and address cases after they’ve happened. This survey allows us to take a proactive stance and change things that might stop sexual harassment before it happens.

How did the results from the 2015 and 2019 survey change how the University addresses these issues?

McGinn: The 2015 survey was the first of its kind. People had been talking about the prevalence of harm occurring on college campuses, but there was little data available about the actual prevalence of sexual harassment and misconduct within higher education. We didn’t really know how problematic and pervasive this was as a national public health issue until we got that solid data in 2015. Continuing to survey at regular intervals is essential for us to see how certain strategies are or are not making a difference over time. And as one in a group of universities conducting this survey, we can share information across institutions and learn from our peers. We must work together to find effective solutions.

Newell: Before 2015 and even until 2019, there was a lot of focus on policy. Since 2015, research has confirmed that solely focusing on policies, procedures, and the law doesn’t change behavior or reduce harm. Since that first iteration of the survey, we’ve shifted our approach to looking at the issue of sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct in higher education as a public health issue, which must be addressed from multiple angles, including individual or bystander action, cultural change, and policy awareness. 

McGinn: The survey also provides information about the places and the situations in which sexual harassment and sexual assault takes place, allowing us to focus efforts there. For example, the 2015 and 2019 surveys revealed that alcohol consumption is co-occurring with student-on-student sexual harassment and assault. In response, HBS has supported student-led efforts toward having social events that aren’t centered around alcohol. Additionally, we learned from the 2019 results that Harvard should emphasize bystander strategies more.  Since the 2019 survey, we’ve increased both online and in person training for our students, staff, and faculty on bystander intervention. 

This time of year is hectic at the University, especially for students. Why is important for all degree-seeking students to pause and take the survey?

McGinn: For any survey to be useful, it’s critical to have a representative sample. By hearing from all people across campus regardless of their positive or negative experiences, we can fully understand what’s going on and continue to try to get in front of it.

Newell: My biggest worry is a low response rate. We can’t address and prevent sexual misconduct without engaging the community. The more voices we hear, the stronger the survey results will be and the better positioned we will be to understand what changes are needed. So, we really do need to get as many students to take it as possible.

The survey includes questions about highly sensitive issues and topics, and some students may have concerns about confidentiality. How will students’ privacy be protected?

Newell: Westat, an independent research firm, is conducting the survey. They are contractually required to anonymize all responses and won’t maintain or generate any connection logs with IP addresses. No information about a person’s identity will be shared with Harvard at all — there’s a complete separation. And it’s up to a student to decide whether or not they participate. We hope they will, but it is entirely voluntary.

How could faculty and staff encourage students to participate?

McGinn: I think it’s paramount for faculty to get the word out there. As a faculty member, you can mention it in class; you can put the QR code on your office door. Just talking about it is really, really important.