Admissions Officers Prepare for Questions on Sexual Assault

As he and other representatives of Harvard’s undergraduate Admissions Office prepare to hit the road this weekend to host information sessions for prospective applicants, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 says the issue of campus sexual assault is on his mind.

Since the results of a nationwide sexual conduct climate survey were released last Monday and top administrators characterized Harvard’s results as “troubling” and “deeply distressing,” the Admissions Office has been weighing the best way to discuss the survey’s findings with applicants and their parents.

Among other points, the survey found that 31 percent of senior female respondents at the College reported having experienced some kind of sexual misconduct—what the survey termed “nonconsensual sexual contact”—during their time there. According to Fitzsimmons, his office plans to acknowledge the upsetting nature of the results and direct applicants toward publications like The Crimson for context and student perspectives.

Sexual Misconduct at Harvard and Other Schools
Slightly more than 29 percent of surveyed Harvard senior women—a category which includes some students in the Division of Continuing Education—reported that they had experienced nonconsensual penetration and sexual touching since coming to college. The rate was 27.2 across all 27 schools that participated in the Association of American Universities survey. When Harvard DCE students were removed, the prevalence rate of nonconsensual penetration and sexual touching rose from 29.2 percent to 31.2 percent of Harvard respondents, according to a report from former Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman.

“We feel that students have the greatest credibility on these issues,” said Fitzsimmons, adding that he planned to refer applicants to a Crimson editorial published last week.

Respondents to The Crimson’s annual freshman survey this summer indicated that they thought about the issue of sexual assault when applying to college. Thirty-four percent of female respondents in the Class of 2019 said they considered the culture and policies surrounding sexual assault when deciding whether to attend Harvard, while only 11 percent of male students said the same.


While the Admissions Office is prepared to answer questions about the survey’s findings, multiple admissions experts agreed that the results were not likely to deter many students from applying to Harvard.

“I don’t see that [the results] could possibly mount to a significant drop in applications,” said Parke P. Muth, a former associate dean of admissions at the University of Virginia. “By and large Harvard is a school that takes proactive, or at least reactive, steps to address issues as they come up.”

Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law, agreed that the survey results alone would probably not significantly affect the College’s applicant pool, but predicted that Harvard’s sexual assault response systems would come under closer scrutiny this admissions cycle.

“My guess with prospective applicants is they’ll be most interested in what happens next. They’re going to be asking, ‘What is Harvard doing to address this problem?’” he said.

Laura Bennett, the president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, agreed that applicants should consider other factors like prevention and education programs, support systems for assault victims, and the overall social scene when evaluating a college’s sexual conduct climate.

“Rather than let a statistic deter a student from applying to the school of their choice, applicants may want to look at the overall campus culture around sexual misconduct,” Bennett wrote in an email.

Lake praised University President Drew G. Faust for hosting a town hall meeting to discuss the survey results the day they were released and suggested that the survey would lead to more open conversation about campus sexual assault during the admissions process.

“The survey is almost certainly going to change the national approach that was common for years, which was just to not talk about assault because you might spook the applicants,” Lake said.

For his part, Fitzsimmons said the survey confirmed that campus sexual assault “has been a big issue for a long time.”

“Now that we have hard evidence of it, that’s the point where we can begin understanding the scale of the situation,” he said.

—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.


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