Harvard Finalizes Sexual Assault Climate Survey

UPDATED: February 24, 2015, at 11:29 p.m.

After January pre-testing, Harvard is finalizing its sexual assault climate survey and—given that similar surveys have historically drawn lackluster response rates—plans to heavily publicize it before rolling it out in April.

The survey, which is a localized version of an Association of American Universities survey that 28 schools will issue this spring, will ask student respondents a range of questions on sexual misconduct and affirmative consent, according to Economics professor David I. Laibson ’88, a member of Harvard’s sexual assault task force who is helping spearhead the design of the national survey.

Harvard will send out its survey to roughly 20,000 students across the University on April 12.

Though a standard version of the survey will be issued to all 28 schools that participate, it will be individualized to each school in several ways, according to Laibson. Each university will generate its own responses about its individual schools, student organizations, living situations, and support and reporting infrastructures, such as Harvard’s central Office of Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution, which investigates student sexual harassment complaints.


In the survey’s student organizations section, for example, the Harvard version will specifically mention final clubs, Laibson said.

Some schools, notably Princeton, have opted out of participating in the the AAU survey so as to form their own that are more school-specific. Laibson said schools may potentially conduct supplemental, more individualized surveys in the future but said the uniformity of April’s survey will make it easier to compare different schools’ results.

"When you design a survey, the subtlest little differences like the order of the questions or the wording can make an enormous difference, and so you can't compare data,” Laibson said. “But when you design questions that are identical and implement the survey in an identical way and compensate people with identical incentives, you learn vastly more."

In January, Laibson and his team pre-tested the survey at Harvard by inviting 200 random students—100 undergraduates and 100 graduate students—to view a portion of the survey and give feedback on its most “complicated” and  “controversial” questions, he said. Students received $25 in exchange for written feedback on the survey and an additional $5 if they did an interview on the topic.

Laibson said survey organizers also solicited and heard feedback on the survey from about 15 student group leaders. He declined to specify which student organizations were contacted.

In advance of its April launch, Harvard survey organizers are also planning a publicity campaign to be chaired by Vice President for Strategy and Programs Leah Rosovsky, in hopes of garnering a large number of survey responses, Laibson said.

Although surveys usually get a 20 to 30 percent response rate, according to Laibson, he said he hoped the sexual assault survey would ideally yield at least an 80 percent response rate at Harvard. He later acknowledged, however, that the survey will more likely yield a response rate of between 20 and 35 percent.

To incentivize students to respond, Harvard will offer students $5 for completing the survey, Laibson said, while some other colleges may offer monetary incentives to only a sample of their student bodies.

After the survey is completed, the AAU will release aggregate data on participating schools’ collective responses and send individualized data to each institution. Individual schools are not obligated to make their own data public.

Laibson said he hopes to release as much information about Harvard’s responses as possible, but may not break down data by each specific school if their pool of respondents is too small to guarantee participants’ anonymity.


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