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

By Quynh-Nhu Le and Gabrielle M. Williams, Crimson Staff Writers

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.

“We will share with the world what we learn with the survey,” he said. “I’ve spoken to no one who is against that.”

Laibson added that he expects all schools to take a similar course of action, and that the AAU will conduct national analysis with the compiled data.

According to Laibson, Harvard’s decision to help develop and use the AAU’s survey was made after extensive conversations with Harvard administrators, the AAU, and the “Ivy Plus” consortium—an informal body of elite colleges.

“We feel very strongly that there’s great benefit in having data that’s harmonized across schools,” Laibson said. “Every school could have its own survey, but there would be no way to compare data and leverage knowledge from one campus to another.”

Similar sexual assault surveys are already underway in several universities. MIT, for example, formulated and conducted a survey last spring delving into the campus culture surrounding sexual assault. Unlike the proposed national survey, it was designed by members of the MIT community.

The MIT study found that at least 17 percent of female MIT undergraduates indicated that they had been sexually assaulted. It also reported that 67 percent of MIT undergraduates said they think that “rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved.”

According to Laibson, Harvard plans to deploy the survey in spring 2014 at Harvard. He expects Harvard to release the results in early fall 2015. Flounlacker said the AAU will announce later this week which research firm it has contracted to conduct its survey.

The survey will be available in its first year to the 62 American and Canadian research universities that make up the AUU, along with the members of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, an umbrella organization composed of private universities.

—Staff writer Quynh-Nhu Le can be reached at

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