Sexual Assault at Harvard

“It is estimated that one in five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted during their time there—one in five.” — President Barack Obama

Last week, one of us had lunch with a colleague who adamantly rejected these numbers. He argued that the surveys that yielded these results are methodologically flawed. He believes that politicians and pundits are extrapolating a national trend (“one in five” women experiencing an attempted or completed sexual assault while at college) from a handful of potentially misleading studies. He also noted that we don’t have data from Harvard students.

During the last year, we’ve heard a lot of people critique the one in five number. Many students and faculty have told us that the true prevalence is much lower. Many other students and faculty have told us that the true prevalence is much higher. One fraternity member from a peer university told us that well over a third of female university students experience an attempted or completed sexual assault during a four-year degree program.

This wide range of strongly expressed opinions is facilitated by inconclusive survey evidence. And so we are left with serious questions. Is the true prevalence of sexual assault less than or greater than one in five?  And how does the national prevalence rate compare to prevalence at Harvard? To answer these questions reliably, we need much more high-quality data, especially surveys in which the vast majority of those invited participate in the survey.

And this is where you can help. This month, 28 research universities with a total population of more than 800,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students will conduct a new Sexual Conduct Survey. Harvard is one of those schools. At Harvard, all degree-seeking students will be surveyed, comprising 20,000 students at Harvard College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the nine professional schools.  

This new Sexual Conduct Survey creates an opportunity to significantly advance the national debate about the prevalence and nature of sexual assault. The survey will also measure other forms of sexual harassment, data that has not been collected extensively at Harvard before.

This survey is important for many reasons, but four stand out in our minds.

First, each university needs a 2015 baseline measurement of the prevalence of sexual assault and other kinds of sexual harassment on their campus. As new policies come on line and as social norms evolve, we need to know whether the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment is falling (or rising) relative to that baseline.

Second, the survey will reveal variation in the prevalence of sexual assault across universities. As we reevaluate our own policies, we should study the policies and practices of the universities with the lowest rates of sexual assault. Of course, we can also glean valuable lessons from studying universities with the highest rates of sexual assault.

Third, the survey will identify risk factors—for instance, alcohol and other drugs that lead to incapacitation—that will help universities design better policies. Understanding the myriad risk factors will help Harvard and other universities improve their educational outreach programs and interventions targeted at sexual assault, such as bystander intervention training.  

Fourth, the survey will help us measure satisfaction and dissatisfaction with Harvard’s specific reporting and support structures for students who have experienced sexual assault. Are these organizations working well? Have students even heard of them?

On Sunday, Harvard students received an email from Westat, a survey research organization, inviting you to participate in the Sexual Conduct Survey. (If you didn’t get it, please check your spam filter.) Having Westat—which is external to Harvard—conduct the survey assures confidentiality. Harvard will never receive any student identifiers from Westat, and even the records that Westat itself keeps are stripped of all identifiers. Using a common survey across 28 schools also assures comparability. We’ll learn much more because Westat is asking the same questions in the same way across the 28 campuses.

The success of this survey is in your hands. Please respond to the Westat invitation by taking the survey, regardless of whether you think the issue of sexual assault is directly relevant to you. The purpose of this survey is to gather information about the student population as a whole, not about a particular sub-population. Because of the responses that you and your peers provide, we’ll be able to significantly advance what we know about sexual assault and other kinds of sexual harassment.  The results generated from this survey will influence university and national policy decisions for decades to come.

Rakesh Khurana is Dean of Harvard College, the Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development at the Harvard Business School, Professor of Sociology, and Co-Master of Cabot House. David I. Laibson ’88 is the Robert I. Goldman Professor of Economics and Director of the Foundations of Human Behavior Initiative. Xiao-Li Meng is Dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Whipple V. N. Jones Professor of Statistics.

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