Surveys offer insight into campus climate

by Sasha Dudding and Parker Richards | 10/12/14 6:43pm

Amid an ongoing Title IX investigation, Dartmouth is one of several colleges preparing to launch campus climate surveys — questionnaires that aim to gauge the incidence and perceptions of sexual violence, from feelings of safety on campus to experience with specific types of assault.

Such a survey will likely form part of Dartmouth’s Title IX resolution, Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault mini-grant coordinator John Damianos ’16 said.

After a 15-month investigation of Yale University concluded in June 2012, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and Yale agreed that the university would conduct annual assessments of campus climate and report to the OCR through May 2014.

At Dartmouth, calls for such a survey have been included in the Committee on Student Safety and Accountability’s 2013 report and the student-authored “Freedom Budget,” published in February. The “Freedom Budget” asked for “continuous external reviews” of the College focusing on racism, classism, ableism and heterosexism. After “Freedom Budget” proponents staged a sit-in of College President Phil Hanlon’s office last April, former Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson signed an agreement stating that, among other things, the College would conduct such a survey and release its results by 2016. Though a fall launch date was discussed, administrators expressed a desire to delay the survey until the release of the Title IX report and the arrival of provost Carolyn Dever, under whose authority the survey would likely fall.

Pressure to release such surveys is increasing, as 84 schools nationally are under investigation for potential violations of Title IX. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault released its first report, titled “Not Alone,” in April, which called for colleges to conduct campus climate surveys to help administrators understand and address issues surrounding sexual assault.

“The first step in solving a problem is to name it and know the extent of it – and a campus climate survey is the best way to do that,” the report states.

Damianos said he believes the survey will collect accurate information on student experiences and perceptions, with less underreporting than what is included in the annual campus crime report federally mandated by the Clery Act.

“I think that campus climate surveys are very effective tools in data collection because of the small proportion of survivors who actually go forward to issue formal complaints,” he said.

Damianos said the survey should help administrators understand whether higher numbers on the annual security and fire safety report arise from a greater incidence of assault or increased comfort with reporting.

Mentors Against Violence director Katie Wheeler ’15 agreed that the surveys are an effective tool, highlighting their ability to measure campus perceptions about sexual violence. This information has been absent from past data, she said.

“Perhaps the numbers about sexual assault perpetration on this campus will exceed what the Clery numbers have been, but I think what’s important right now is to assess how students perceive the Dartmouth community and their attitudes toward sexual violence,” she said.

Wheeler added that MAV is conducting its own surveys on the topic, asking students questions about whether they would report a friend who had committed an assault, how they would define sexual assault and their views of campus gender dynamics.

Student body president Casey Dennis ’15 said Student Assembly will conduct its own survey, asking not about student experiences but rather on what issues they would like to see addressed. The survey will collect feedback on the Assembly’s mental health and sexual assault initiatives and will help chart the course for winter term.

“We respond differently to administrative questions than questions posed by student leaders,” Dennis said.

Campus climate surveys have been launched at other academic institutions. The White House selected Rutgers University to pilot the Department of Justice’s model campus climate survey, which it will conduct online from Oct. 27 through Nov. 5, The Daily Targum reported.

At the University of California at Berkeley, administrators and student leaders are brainstorming and implementing programming based on the results of a University of California system-wide survey that received over 104,000 responses. The survey was online from November 2012 to May 2013, and results were announced last March.

Senior Meg Perret, an intern at the university’s Gender Equity Resource Center and a member of the student government’s Sexual Assault Commission, said underreporting remained an issue. Just 4 percent of students said that they had been assaulted, a number Perret said was out of line with national statistics, her own experiences on campus and those of her peers.

One in four students reported feeling uncomfortable at the University of California, with higher numbers for women, minorities and LGBT-identifying students. Perret said that people who live with multiple marginalized identities reported facing greater violence and exclusion, noting the importance of intersectionality when looking at the data.

“Numbers help lend credibility to the things that we’ve been saying on our campus,” she said. “But its not like this is a surprise to any of us who live with marginalized identities.”

Future surveys should better explain the various forms that sexual assault can take, state that students do not need to have brought a formal complaint to respond that they had been assaulted and place a greater emphasis on anonymity, she said.

Damianos agreed that the surveys need to be clear to define terms like sexual assault, sexual violence, rape and consent, noting that Dartmouth students interviewed by an SPCSA mini-grant recipient found the wording of White House-recommended survey questions unclear.

The University of Virginia will launch a survey this February, inspired by the White House recommendations, junior Sara Surface said. Surface, who co-chairs the university’s Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition, said UVA students have not been particularly vocal about sexual assault.

“I think the climate survey gives the university a good way for people to anonymously say what’s going on on campus without them having to publicly talk about it or get involved,” she said.

University of Virginia senior Will Cadigan, Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition co-chair and former vice president of the all-male sexual assault prevention group One in Four, said he thinks the survey will prompt action. Asking students about their experiences with sexual assault can reduce underreporting and get past the “tip of the iceberg,” he said, which can then inspire change.

“I think it’s effective and incredibly important,” Cadigan said. “No one really knows the scope of the problem.”

Perret said that while Berkeley’s survey was imperfect and faced underreporting, campus climate surveys are an important tool and can be helpful across campuses.

“It makes administrators face the truth of what we’ve been telling them for decades,” she said.

Wheeler is a former member of The Dartmouth opinion staff.

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