After AAU survey, professors want to support safer campus

by Erin Lee | 10/1/15 8:22pm

Some College faculty were startled by the results from the Association of American Universities campus climate survey data released last week, even as others said they were not surprised. Still, all agreed that professors have an obligation to create a safe campus community.

The College has not formally reached out to the faculty to address the findings.

According to the survey, 13 percent of Dartmouth students reported that sexual contact — either by incapacitation or physical force — had been attempted or completed against them since they matriculated. The overall rate for the 27 participating institutions was 12 percent.

For female undergraduates in their senior year, 34 percent reported nonconsensual sexual contact by force or incapacitation, seven percentage points higher than the national rate of 27 percent. The College also had one of the top five highest response rates at 41.7 percent, compared to the average of 19 percent.

Economics professor Bruce Sacerdote, who declined to comment over the phone or in person, will chair a data analysis committee to release an additional report that will synthesize the AAU data with the Community Study survey the College is conducting in October.

He wrote in an email that a “thoughtful analysis” could help evaluate the efficacy of solutions and result in deeper insights. Through data analysis, he wrote, the College could “distinguish itself in a very positive way.”

Faculty expressed varying degrees of surprise regarding the College’s comparatively high rates of nonconsensual sexual contact.

Engineering professor Jane Hill said she was not surprised by the results and accompanying “media splash,” though she had hoped the College’s sexual assault rates might be lower.

“I think everybody should be concerned,” she said. “These numbers are unacceptable to students, not to mention faculty or students’ families.”

Biology professor Mark McPeek said the numbers were higher than he expected.

Seven faculty members interviewed by The Dartmouth agreed that they have a responsibility to create a safe environment for students, although some said they were not sure exactly how to engender comfortable campus communities.

English professor Ivy Schweitzer said the College should provide a forum for faculty to ask questions or respond to the survey results. Schweitzer chairs the Committee on Student Life, a group of faculty and administrators that meets once a term to discuss issues and reports pertaining to student life. The committee discussed sexual assault extensively last year, but it has not yet convened this term, she said.

“Although one could argue most faculty aren’t trained to create or judge these kinds of questions — it’s important for transparency, for the administration to show they’re working hard on these issues,” Schweitzer said. “The faculty need to buy in on this process — we are a major force on campus.”

Hill was recently appointed to be a house professor as part of the new residential communities system being implemented next fall. She said the system aims to enhance bystander intervention and prevention of sexual assault.

House professors have not yet formally convened to discuss the AAU report, but talks about preventing sexual assault have been important during the planning stages of the new residential system, she said.

Astronomy professor Ryan Hickox, who will be a house professor, said the AAU survey demonstrates that other institutions with residential house systems similar to the one the College is launching still have significant problems with sexual assault.

“The residential system by itself isn’t goinwg to ameliorate problems,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to tie efforts to combat sexual assault directly into the residential experience.”

Computer science professor Xia Zhou noted that faculty often chat with students after class or during office hours, which can help them gauge student opinion on campus-wide issues. She said that if faculty voice opinions or express support for students during classes or events, it could make campus safer.

Writing professor John Donaghy said more research should be conducted on sexual assault. In particular, he said, he was interested in figures about demographics of the perpetrators and conditions surrounding the assaults. He added that students should take charge of the issue to make sure change actually occurs.

“The most important thing is to remember students started [the movement against sexual assault], and students will probably have to be the ones to keep it honest,” he said.

Not all professors are eager to help, Schweitzer said, but some faculty want to effect change.

“Faculty are already involved, whether they want to be or not,” she said. “We teach students — even though we’re mainly concerned with their academic curriculum — social curriculum plays a major role in how students are able to learn. We as adults also have a part in the maturation process of these young people.”

Workshops advising faculty members on addressing reports of sexual assault — which are already offered by the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning — should be mandatory during orientation for new faculty, Schweitzer said.

Hill said she is hopeful that rising awareness about sexual assault will lead to meaningful change on campus and elsewhere.

“I’m glad we’re at a point in the public discourse where it has momentum,” Hill said. “Dartmouth can lead — there are preventative measures we can employ. I hope that happens soon. We have that opportunity.”