Sexual Climate Survey Used by Harvard May Become Nat'l Model

A month after Harvard administrators announced that the University was collaborating with peer institutions to create a national sexual assault survey, experts say that the survey may provide a model for the rest of the country.

Former University provost Steven E. Hyman, chair of a task force commissioned last spring to address sexual misconduct on campus, announced last month that Harvard was collaborating with peer institutions to create a survey, which the University plans to conduct next spring, to gauge the circumstances in which unwanted sexual advances occur.

The Association of American Universities is overseeing efforts by Harvard and other member universities to develop the survey, according to David I. Laibson ’88, member of Harvard’s sexual assault task force.

The AAU expects Congress to soon enact legislation that would mandate a campus “climate” survey, said Mollie B. Flounlacker, associate vice president for federal relations of the AAU. A White House task force had recommended in April that all colleges conduct a mandatory sexual assault survey.

Flounlacker noted that the AAU is working closely with the office of Senator Claire C. McCaskill of Missouri, who, along with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, has spearheaded the effort to implement legislation that addresses sexual assault.


“We think that a survey is critical to making progress,” Flounlacker said. “But we don’t think that one designed by the federal government, specifically the Department of Education, is going to be helpful. In fact, it could be quite misleading and not make progress, the kind of progress we want to make on this issue.”

To that end, the AAU hopes its survey will become the framework for any survey mandated by the federal government, Flounlacker added.

“We want to create a survey that is absolutely world-class,” Laibson said.

The institutions that implement the AAU’s survey will be bound by the standard set of questions outlined by the AAU for the first year. They will only be able to insert the names of school-specific offices and resources into the questions, Flounlacker said.

This system would preclude questions that reference Harvard final clubs, or other organizations unique to the University.

Emily M. Fox-Penner ’17, an organizer of Our Harvard Can Do Better, said that she hoped that the national survey would include questions that could highlight a college’s institutional flaws. However, she added she believes that even if Harvard could control its questions, it might still be hesitant to include hard-hitting questions that cast Harvard institutions in an unfavorable light.

“Whether [survivors’] experience with the administration after they experience sexual assault is actually making things worse…those are the questions that Harvard has no incentives to be asking,” she said.

The AAU expects colleges to be able to modify and hone the questions down the line. Laibson, who serves on an AAU committee overseeing the survey, said he believes colleges will have more control over the content in the future.

Fox-Penner also pointed out the need for accessibility and transparency in the survey results, saying there is often “a black cloud around the data that Harvard currently collects.”

Although participating universities will be able to decide on an individual basis how to report survey results, Laibson said everyone he has spoken to at Harvard is committed to “maximum transparency” while still preserving anonymity.


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