David I. Laibson ’88 first came to Harvard more than 30 years ago as an undergraduate. Since he returned to Harvard as an instructor in 1994, he has become chair of the Economics department and served on multiple committees.
Students recognize him most recently, however, as one of the key figures in administering and designing the Sexual Conduct Survey distributed across Harvard and some 26 schools through his role on the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault.
The results of the survey have sent shockwaves through Harvard and have refocused national attention on the epidemic of sexual assault on university campuses. FM spoke with Laibson briefly about the survey, its results, and what’s next for the effort to end sexual assault on campus. Below is a transcription of the conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
Fifteen Minutes: So, one of your roles is as the director of the Foundations of Human Behavior Initiative. What kind of work do they do?
David Laibson: We support interdisciplinary work in the social sciences, especially work that involves the study of human behavior and the many forces that combine to produce that behavior all the way from economic incentives to psychological factors and everything else—so biological mechanism, neuroscience, genetics, all the different elements that we know jointly influence human behavior.
FM: Seems like a good background to view a problem like sexual assault.
DL: That’s a great point. So one of the big themes in the foundations of human behavior and also in behavioral economics—which I think of as part of the foundations of human behavior—is the theme of behavior change. What a lot of social science attempts to do is not just describe and explain behavior, but if you really understand the mechanisms that are driving behavior, you should also be able to influence behavior. So, one of the really exciting developments is the design of programs, often we’ll call it “choice architecture,” that leads people to make choices that are not self-defeating.
FM: You’re also a member of the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault. How did you join?
DL: Steve Hyman is the chair of the task force. I believe that he identified me as someone that he wanted to have on the task force and he discussed that with [Harvard] President Drew Faust, and she invited me to join the task force back in roughly April 2014.
FM: In the fall of 2014 you said the goal was to design a survey that was “absolutely world-class.” Do you think you did that?
DL: Yes. This process greatly exceeded my expectations in terms of the quality of the instrument, the survey, and the quality of the process. If you’d asked me in the fall: How many bumps in the road are you going to hit? I would’ve said that it’s impossible to imagine we are going to do all of this in 12 months, including rolling out the data, without a few major fumbles along the way. So far, fingers crossed, there haven’t been any.
FM: Were there any survey design compromises you had to make in the name of data comparability?
DL: The big compromise was shrinking the number of questions to make it fit into a reasonable time span. We all wanted a survey that, in principle, would’ve been about four times as long and would’ve asked many many more questions about circumstances, but if you’re going to ask an undergraduate to sit for two hours and answer a sexual assault survey, the response isn’t going to be very great. So we decided it had to be about 25 minutes long and that meant making very difficult choices about content. Part of that is not having every school ask every individual a battery of questions.
We did have a compromise in which each school was able to pick specific response categories for particular questions. But by and large the survey is completely identical across the 27 schools, and that harmonized form enables us to make comparisons. It also streamlines the survey, making it easier to implement and making it less burdensome for the students who are taking it.
FM: When you talk about particular circumstances at Harvard, would final clubs fall under that?
DL: That’s right, that’s exactly right. Final clubs would be one of the most important particular circumstances at Harvard. We negotiated language that I think rather narrowly defines a category that I think most students would understand as referring to final clubs. That question was inserted to recognize our need, the need that essentially no other school, or almost no other school, had.
FM: The results of the survey were really chilling. Can you walk me through your reaction to the results? Did they surprise you?
DL: I remember first seeing the results and being devastated. They’re horrific numbers, and we’re essentially like the other AAU schools, and they’re just nightmarishly high. Roughly 16 percent of our female seniors have either experienced completed or attempted penetration, which is completed or attempted rape. It’s hard to think about that level of violence in our community. I was devastated by that number.
I’ve been vaguely depressed all summer. I’ve been thinking about this for a year, talking to a lot of people, and I knew this was a terrible problem, so I was expecting an unacceptably high number, but this was even above what I was expecting. It was—it was just awful. Mind-boggling.
FM: Is it hard for you to balance the academic aspect of sorting the numbers, and the human aspect behind them?
DL: I’m a professional social scientist, so, for me, going back and forth from the numbers to the reality of individual experiences is very natural. I think about individuals. I think about people that I know who have experienced sexual assault, and I also see the numbers, and they work together for me mentally. I do think it’s important for us to remember that for some people the numbers feel very abstract and they need to reminded that behind these numbers are a lot of people who are being raped.
FM: What were the common threads that stood out to you in student response at the town hall meeting to discuss the results on Monday, Sept. 23?
DL: The reaction of the students, I think, was exactly right. Like us, they’re horrified by these numbers, and they’re rightly eager to see what the policy response will emerge, now that we have the data and a better understanding of where we’re failing. That really stood out to me, that’s what one would expect, and that’s the way it is.
FM: So on campuses, you hear both sides of a certain argument: One is that the administration is not doing nearly enough to address the problem, and the other is that they can’t do much to address the problem, that it’s cultural. How much of the problem is the administration, do you think?
DL: So, I can assure your readers that the administration is focused on this with extraordinary intensity, and that that focus begins with President Faust and goes through the entire administration. Everyone I’ve spoken to, every dean, they’re all completely focused on this issue and on what we can do to try to reduce the prevalence of sexual assault.
They’re not naïve. They understand that this is not a switch you flick and it suddenly goes away. They understand that we’re now in a generational effort to not only change our rules, but to also change our institution and our culture. It’s going to take a lot of creativity, and a lot of new ideas, and a lot of experimentation to not just change the rate of sexual assault prevalence, but to make a difference.
So both the positions you described have a degree of legitimacy. We need to do more, absolutely, and we also need to be vigilant in recognizing that it’s going to take years and years of continual effort to substantially change this malignancy. I wish we knew how to make the change that will rapidly change the landscape. I don’t know what that change is, so I’m advocating a lot of changes that I’m hoping will jointly make a difference.
FM: Some people have been criticizing the fact that there are only three undergrads on the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault. I know you are not in charge of appointing the task force, but why do you think there are only three undergraduates?
DL: I didn’t appoint the task force, but one thing I do want to emphasize is that the task force has worked on a lot of outreach to the community. And by that I don’t mean telling the community what we’re doing, but actually soliciting from the community ideas, insights, descriptions of the environment, etc. My pre-testing [for the survey] involved about 50 students, including many students who have subject matter expertise in this area, and I know that Stephanie Khurana, who’s also on the committee, undertook a parallel effort that undertook qualitative research that also engaged many students. I just want people to understand that we’re not just talking to three students. The task force has reached out, and I would guess at this point that we’ve heard from hundreds of students in informal conversation, and we’ve heard from 3,000 to 4,000 through the survey, so this is very much an effort to learn from our students, and take their insights and revise our policies, and improve our institution, and improve our cultural norms. So, of course the student voice is at the very center of this conversation.
FM: A few of the other criticisms about the survey was the lack of an affirmative consent standard—
DL: But that’s not a critique of the survey.
FM: Maybe I’m misunderstanding this, but I heard that the way the survey’s questions were tailored, it wasn’t around a framework of affirmative consent.
DL: No, no, just the opposite. I hope they understand that. There is a portion of the survey on affirmative consent and even though Harvard doesn’t have an affirmative consent policy, the survey asked about conduct characterized by the absence of affirmative consent. So some people would say, “Why did you include that on the survey? That’s not our policy.” To which I said, “Well, let’s find out whether absence of affirmative consent is a problem.” So it’s on the survey.
FM: Is absence of affirmative consent a problem?
DL: It is a problem. I mean, that’s not a statement about what our policy should be, but certainly, there are many students reporting that they’ve had a sexual experience in which there was an absence of affirmative consent.
FM: The other thing I’d heard about it was that the 15 percent statistic on final clubs is understated because there are no questions about where the actions were initiated. Would you agree that this is a flaw? Was that a product of having to keep the data comparable to other schools?
DL: It’s not so much a data comparability issue, it’s that the survey does not unpack the timeline of the sexual assault. It’s not just for final clubs. You would like to know in every sexual assault the whole sequence of events, and that was one of the things that ended up on the cutting room floor. Rather than asking, where did the conversation start, what happened next, what happened next, etc., we asked, simply, “Where did this incident occur?”
I like your point, and I completely agree, if we were going to focus in another survey on the location and on the fabric of our social organizations and how they do or don’t contribute to sexual assault, I’d like to know not only where did the incident occur—I’d like to have a timeline for the interaction. So that’s a good proposal for what we might do in another survey like this.
FM: Is there another survey like this in the works?
DL: I definitely wouldn’t say it’s in the works, but I would say we are all expecting such a survey to emerge, probably on a two-year cycle.
FM: Do you think sexual assault is an issue that’s always been around and not received the attention it has needed, or do you think it’s something that has recently become more prevalent?
DL: I believe this is an issue that has always been around, and thankfully it’s finally coming out of the shadows. The more I talk with people, the more I think that we are revealing something that has been present for many, many decades. And who knows, you know, the modern co-educational university is only a century old, so this problem might go back to the very beginning. I don’t know, but the more I talk to people of different ages, the more I’m realizing that this is not new.
FM: So what’s next for your role in this?
DL: So there’ll be more analysis for data, where we have a lot to learn, not only from this survey, among Harvard students, but from among the 26 other schools, and I hope that as we unpack this data, more insights will emerge, not just about prevalence, but also about the cultural differences across the schools.
I’m very interested to learn about bystander intervention across the schools, and other campus-climate dimensions across the schools.
For example, education: Harvard students expressed relatively low level knowledge of our procedures and policies and definitions, and I think that’s a great concern and I’d like to know what schools have higher levels of knowledge and what they’re doing to achieve that higher level for that knowledge.