More Than One-Third of Students Respond to Sexual Conduct Climate Survey

A week and a half after a sexual conduct climate survey opened to Harvard students, 37 percent of eligible students have completed it, according to response rate results updated online by University’s Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault.

Although administrators praise the response rate so far, students who are currently studying abroad or taking time off from school are not able to take the survey, prompting some criticism.

The survey, which is a Harvard-specific version of an Association of American Universities poll being conducted at 28 schools, was released through individualized links to students at Harvard on April 12 from research company Westat, which is administering the survey. It will be open until May 3.

Forty percent of students have completed at least part of the poll, and 43 percent have opened the survey link, according to the results on the Harvard task force’s website.

Administrators have said that they hope to cull a high response rate from students. So far, undergraduates have received messages from Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and University President Drew G. Faust promoting the survey in addition to emails from Westat.

Leah Rosovsky ’78, University vice president for strategy and programs, said each of Harvard’s schools is using specific ways to promote the survey, such as posters or messages from deans or House masters. She said she hopes student organizations will encourage their members to participate in the survey.

There have been some hiccups in the survey’s rollout that may have confused some students. When Faust emailed students about the survey, her initial message went to at least some students’ spam folders. And according to David I. Laibson ’88, a member of the Harvard task force who helped spearhead the design of the national survey, some students mistakenly associated the climate survey email with environmental activist group Divest Harvard’s “Heat Week” protests, prompting them to delete or ignore the survey email.

Additionally, Laibson, who is an Economics professor, acknowledged that the administration has to compete with students’ overflowed inboxes.

“People’s attention is scarce,” Laibson said. “And you can’t expect every email to get noticed or read, or even correctly read in the case of the ‘Heat Week’ misinterpretation.”

Those issues aside, not all students who want to take the survey have been able to do so. Brianna J. Suslovic ’16, who is studying abroad in Spain, received the message from Faust about the survey’s launch but did not receive the link from Westat inviting her to participate.

When she reached out to survey administrators about why she did not receive the link, they informed her in an email that she could not take it.

“We have spoken with contacts at Westat, who informed us that the primary reason for not including this group of students is that they will not have the same access to distress resources,” the Sexual Conduct Survey Team wrote to Suslovic, according to a copy of the exchange she shared with The Crimson. “We do hope, however, that you and other students in this position will be able to weigh in during subsequent surveys.”

Survey designers have repeatedly warned that the sexual climate survey is sensitive in nature and therefore may trigger a post-traumatic stress reaction for sexual harassment survivors. Suslovic, though, said she was concerned that voices of students studying abroad or taking time off would not be taken into account.

“Especially considering that sexual harassment or sexual assault on campus may be a motivating factor in a student's decision to take time off, the fact that this survey isn't interested in hearing these students' experiences is a real problem in my opinion,” Suslovic wrote in an email.

Laibson said in an interview Tuesday afternoon that he was unaware that students abroad or taking time off could not take the survey.  

“I understand why that’s a reasonable place to end up,” Laibson said. “The trade-off is that you want everyone involved; on the other hand, you want people to have support services if they need them.”

Overall, Laibson said he has received primarily positive feedback from students about survey. Laibson declined to say what specific criticisms the survey has received. He said there were few and that he did not have permission to share them.

—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at theodore.delwiche@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @trdelwic.

—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at mariel.klein@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariel_klein.

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