Sexual Assault Survey a Wake-Up Call for Elite Universities

Multiple university leaders said more needs to be done to stop assault.

September 22, 2015, 3:18 PM
PHOTO: New research shows that the most common grade given at Harvard is an A.
New research shows that the most common grade given at Harvard is an A.
Getty Images

— -- An eye-opening survey examining campus sexual assault has multiple university leaders committing to combat the problem.

The survey by the American Association of Universities gathered data on 27 U.S. universities. All of them, with the exception of Dartmouth University, are AAU members, and the survey was conducted at the request of university leaders in an effort to collect more information about sexual assault on campus.

A total of 150,072 students participated in the survey. About 23 percent of female undergraduate students who responded to the survey reported nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force or incapacitation because of drugs or alcohol. Overall, including male and graduate students, 11.7 percent of students reported such unwanted sexual contact.

Depending on the kind of assault, 5 to 28 percent of students said they reported the incident to authorities.

“Overall, the rates of reporting were quite low,” according to the report. “The highest was for stalking (28.0%) and physically forced penetration (25.5%). The rates are lowest for sexual touching involving both physical force (7%) and incapacitation (5%).”

Researchers caution that the results of this survey may be skewed higher because non-victims may have chosen not to respond.

Multiple schools also released detailed reports on assaults on their own campuses based on the same data from this survey to show how they compared to the findings for all of the schools combined.

Harvard University President Drew Faust, for instance, said in a letter that 31 percent (or 172 women) of female college seniors said they had experienced some form of “nonconsensual sexual contact” since college began.

She said the school had already started work to address sexual assaults and provide more support for victims by creating a new office to investigate sexual misconduct, doubling the staff at the Office for Sexual Assault and Prevention and expanding training on sexual assault.

“We must commit ourselves to being a better community than the one the survey portrays,” she said in a letter to campus.

The University of Michigan released its own report finding that 30 percent of female undergraduates experienced sexual assault during their time on campus. University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel acknowledged the rates were higher than the percentage of 23 percent for all the schools combined.

“We are here today against the backdrop of a national focus on the problem of sexual misconduct throughout society. It’s a regular topic in the news,” Schlissel said. “Our goal with this survey was to gain a deep understanding about sexual misconduct and the circumstances surrounding incidents on our campus so we can devise better ways to prevent misconduct and address its consequences.”

Schlissel said the school would focus on improving education and prevention, provide more support for those affected and change how the school investigates assault cases.

The California Institute of Technology released its survey results finding that 13 percent of female students reported sexual assault and sexual misconduct by physical force, threats of physical force or incapacitation since enrolling at Caltech, notably less than the 23 percent for the combined AAU findings.

Scott Berkowitz, president of Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, said the study comes during a nationwide shift in the attitudes toward sexual assault on campus.

“I think there has been a big change in the mindset of universities,” Berkowitz told ABC News. “We’re seeing them take the issue a lot more seriously now than they were two years ago. [They know] that there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny in how they handle this [with] students and alumni and the government.”

He said he hopes the government will soon mandate schools take these surveys in the future so that each campus can know what kind of problems they face.

“I think it’s great. I think that we’ve known this is a big problem nationally for a long time,” he said. “Things like this survey just bring more attention to it and motivate a lot of colleges to try and fix a lot of problems.”

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events