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Prevalence of Sexual Misconduct at Harvard Remains Unchanged From Four Years Ago, AAU Survey Finds

University Hall
University Hall

UPDATED: Oct. 16, 2019 at 2:38 a.m.

Four years and several administrative changes after Harvard first participated in a national sexual misconduct climate survey, the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on campus remains stagnant, according to the results of a 2019 iteration of the survey.

This year’s version of the Association of American Universities survey was administered nationwide in April. Across the 33 participating schools, 180,000 students responded, making this the largest ever survey of its kind. Harvard had an overall response rate of 36.1 percent — slightly more than 8,300 students.

Since the first iteration of the survey in 2015, Harvard’s Title IX Office has undergone substantial structural changes and instituted several new programs. The Office split in two in 2017, a move separating administrators who investigate sexual assault complaints from those who provide Title IX training and resources. Additionally, the University has since implemented mandatory trainings for students, faculty, and staff.

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Tuesday’s data, however, suggests that these changes have yet to make a substantial impact on sexual misconduct at the University. Roughly 33 percent of all undergraduate women surveyed this year reported that they had experienced some form of nonconsensual sexual contact. In 2015, 31 percent of senior undergraduate women reported experiencing some form of sexual assault.

The national prevalence rate for nonconsensual sexual contact among undergraduate women, defined by the same eight criteria nationally as at Harvard, ranged from 17 percent to 32 percent.

Still, the survey reported that more than half of students surveyed trust the University with their sexual misconduct-related concerns: 50 percent of undergraduate women and 75 percent of undergraduate men said they think it is very or extremely likely that a campus official would take their report seriously.

Men were also significantly more likely than women to report that they had very or extremely good knowledge of the University’s definition of sexual misconduct, with 43 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

Despite reported trust in the Title IX Office, only 41 percent of women and 27 percent of men made contact with a program or resource as a result of “penetration involving physical force or inability to consent.”

The most highly cited reasons for female Harvard students — both undergraduates and graduate students — not reporting sexual misconduct were that students thought that they could handle the problem themselves, that they didn’t think their concerns were serious enough, and that they felt “embarrassed, ashamed, or that it would be too emotionally difficult.”

The report offered several reasons why a student may not think an incident was serious enough to report.

“It may be that the student did not feel the incident was serious enough to be considered a violation of the school’s code of conduct,” the report reads. “But it may also be a judgment that the perceived consequences of contacting a program are greater than the consequences of the incident itself.”

Seventy-two percent of Harvard students who said the incident of sexual assault they experienced was not serious enough said they did not make contact because they were “not injured or hurt.”

In a letter from the survey’s steering committee to University President Lawrence S. Bacow, Deputy Provost Margaret E. Newell and Business School professor Kathleen L. McGinn wrote that it will take a culture shift — in addition to the University’s resources and policies — to alleviate students’ worries around reporting.

“Formal policies and mechanisms for responding to reports of sexual assault and harassment are absolutely necessary,” they wrote. “But legal compliance, formal policies and procedures, and student trust in University procedures are far from sufficient means for reducing the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in our community.”

This year’s iteration of the survey asked questions to garner incident-level data, including information about the lead-up location, the location of the incident, and the relationship of both parties involved. Most incidents of sexual assault or harassment occured between two students, in campus housing, and with the involvement of alcohol. Women and BGLTQ students were also significantly more likely to experience sexual misconduct than were men.

In an email to Harvard affiliates Tuesday, Bacow wrote that the continued prevalence of sexual misconduct on campus was “profoundly disturbing.”

“We must do better,” Bacow wrote.

In a separate email to students, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana highlighted various resources on campus — including the recently released Title IX anonymous online reporting system — in an email to undergraduates Tuesday.

“Behind each of the survey data points is a person: a close friend, a classmate, or an acquaintance,” he wrote. “As we move forward, meaningful changes on our campus will rely on increasing prevention, support, and accountability among all members of our community.”

Bacow and Khurana also announced the University's plan to hold a town hall to debrief the survey results on Thursday. Khurana said the College will post additional resources on its website by the end of the week.

Several student organizations also reaffirmed their commitment to supporting those who have experienced harassment in the wake of the survey results.

“Response Peer Counseling is here for all students and we hope that students are aware of and comfortable with reaching out to us as a resource,” wrote Alicia M. Chen ’21, a co-director for Response — a peer counseling group that specializes in relationship issues, including sexual harassment and assault — and an inactive Crimson Fifteen Minutes editor.

Phoebe H. Suh ’22, an organizer with campus anti-sexual assault advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better, said she is disappointed with the survey’s results but “not surprised” by the continued prevalence of sexual misconduct on campus.

“We're surprised that the University's response, as detailed in President Bacow’s email, is similar to the University's reaction to the results of the 2015 AAU Student Survey. Considering that there have been no improvements, we are discouraged by the similarity,” Suh said.

The University could not be immediately reached for comment on its response to the results Tuesday evening.

Correction: Oct. 16, 2019

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the 2015 survey was only distributed to undergraduate senior women. In fact, the survey was distributed to all Harvard students.

—Staff writer Simone C. Chu can be reached at simone.chu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @simonechu_.

—Staff writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at iris.lewis@thecrimson.com.

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