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Graduate Students Respond to Sexual Assault Survey Findings

Results indicate that graduate students who are sexually harassed more often identify faculty members as their offenders

By Meg P. Bernhard, Crimson Staff Writer

As constituencies across Harvard continue to debate how best to prevent sexual assault on campus, student leaders at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences are responding to recent survey results which indicate that graduate students may be especially at risk of being sexually harassed by faculty members.

Late last month, when Harvard released the results of its sexual conduct climate survey, administered last spring at Harvard and 26 other universities, administrators decried what they described as the “deeply troubling” findings about sexual assault on campus. They put particular emphasis on Harvard College and the undergraduate senior women respondents who had experienced sexual misconduct in their time there (31 percent).

But even though they have not been the focus of administrators’ rhetoric, the survey results also detail the experiences of the students at Harvard’s many graduate and professional schools.

Overall, Harvard graduate students surveyed reported experiencing lower rates of sexual assault than their undergraduate peers: Since coming to Harvard, 7.6 percent of female graduate student respondents reported experiencing nonconsensual penetration and sexual touching, compared to 25.5 percent of female undergraduates, a category that includes affiliates of the Extension School.

Other statistics, though, stick out. In particular, graduate students who reported being sexually harassed at Harvard when surveyed last spring were more likely to identify an offender as a faculty member than their undergraduate counterparts, prompting the concern of graduate student leaders.

In the survey, the term sexual harassment encompasses being the target of sexual or crude jokes and comments, offensive comments about their bodies, emailed or texted offensive sexual remarks, or repeated unwanted requests for dinner, drinks, or sex.

Of female graduate students surveyed who said they had been sexually harassed at Harvard, 21.8 percent reported that an offender was a faculty member, compared to 6.5 percent of female undergraduates. For male graduate students who reported experiencing harassment, the percentage was also higher than their undergraduate counterparts—15.3 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively, said they had been harassed by a faculty member.

In light of the survey results, the Graduate Student Council is working with administrators to publicize the resources and reporting procedures available to students who experience harassment, according to John Gee, the group’s vice president and a History department teaching fellow.

Gee wrote in an email that “harassment is especially of concern to graduate students, who depend on their relationships with their advisors for professional advancement.”

Across the 27 schools that participated in the survey—which the Association of American Universities developed and administered through the research firm Westat—22.4 percent of female graduate and professional students who reported being sexually harassed identified a faculty member as an offender.

Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law, said graduate students, more so than undergraduates, interact regularly with faculty members for advising and to collaborate on research. This could account for the discrepancy between the two groups’ experiences with harassment, he said.

“The more contact you have, the likelier these issues will arise,” Lake said, also noting that graduate students and professors are generally closer in age than undergraduates and their professors.

Other than the survey’s findings on graduate student experiences with harassment, graduate student leaders are also responding to results that indicate that their peers are not informed about Harvard’s sexual assault response resources and reporting mechanisms.

Just 19 percent of female and 16.9 percent of male graduate students reported being “very or extremely knowledgeable” about where to seek help after experiencing sexual assault or misconduct. A higher proportion of undergraduates—36.6 percent and 35.7 percent of female and male undergraduates, respectively—said they were “very or extremely knowledgeable” on that front.

To that end, Gee wrote that the Graduate Student Council is working with GSAS administrators to publicize Harvard’s procedures for students who have experienced sexual assault or harassment.

Lake said universities across the country have been focusing on undergraduates while addressing the implementation of Title IX—the federal gender equity law. “The Title IX response in graduate schools has been somewhat lacking” in comparison, he said.

At the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ first meeting of the semester, Dean Michael D. Smith noted that there was an opening in a new Title IX coordinator position for GSAS and faculty affairs.

While he did not specifically address the issue of graduate student sexual assault and harassment, Smith said FAS is planning faculty programs to help prevent sexual assault. Efforts include faculty training, Title IX information sessions, and Title IX coordinator meetings with department representatives.

—Staff writer Jill E. Steinman contributed to the reporting of this story

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