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Let’s tackle sexual assault at Stanford with comprehensive data

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Since its release in October, the Stanford Campus Climate Survey has come under fire both in this publication and in national media for the misleading way the data on sexual assault at Stanford were reported. A narrow definition of sexual assault and the aggregation of rates of sexual assault across all students – men and women, undergraduate and graduate students – led to Stanford’s finding that about 2 percent of Stanford students had experienced sexual assault.

This statistic stands in stark contrast to the commonly-heard figure that one in five undergraduate women experience sexual assault (where sexual assault is defined as nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration through force or incapacitation). A 2015 survey conducted by 27 peer schools through the Association of American Universities found that this figure is actually on the low side: among participating institutions, 26.1 percent of female undergraduates had experienced sexual assault defined this way by their senior year. Stanford, by comparison, did not offer a figure for sexual assault defined this way. We know that 6.5 percent of Stanford undergraduate women have experienced nonconsensual penetration through force or incapacitation by their senior year. However, Stanford did not release a figure for both non-consensual penetration and sexual touching through force or incapacitation, despite the fact that this is the benchmark figure used by the AAU and despite the fact that sexual touching due to force or incapacitation is often a felony under California state law.

Stanford’s decision to use its own definitions of sexual assault and sexual misconduct, rather than the categories used by the AAU that would have made its results directly comparable to those of its peer institutions, complicates our understanding of Stanford’s sexual assault rates. On Jan. 18, in response to these concerns, the ASSU Undergraduate Senate unanimously passed a resolution asking for the Campus Climate Survey to be re-administered, using the survey and methodology employed by the AAU Campus Climate Survey. In an open letter to Provost Etchemendy published in The Stanford Daily, ASSU Senator Matthew Cohen wrote that “it is crucial that Stanford have results that are comparable to its peer schools, so that our community can best understand what policies work and do not work.”

The Graduate Student Council, by comparison, opposes having the survey immediately re-administered. According to Gabriel Rodriguez, chair of the GSC, the council feels that whatever the results of a new Campus Climate Survey might be, they would simply serve to reinforce the fact that sexual assault is a problem at Stanford. Therefore, the consensus from the council has been that funding from the university to combat sexual assault should be channeled toward finding solutions, rather than taking the expensive measures necessary to replicate the survey.

However, there is an easy and inexpensive alternative: we can more fully analyze the survey data we have already collected, and we can do so immediately. Although the report released by Stanford about sexual assault currently uses very restrictive definitions, screenshots from the 2015 Campus Climate Survey show that Stanford did collect data on nonconsensual sexual touching. These data could easily be reclassified to better align with categories used by our peer schools. By regrouping the data into the same metrics used by the AAU, we can have a better sense of how Stanford’s sexual assault rates compare to those of other institutions; this, in turn, will help us to put forth well-informed policies.  

There is another compelling reason to turn back to the original data of the Campus Climate Survey: a great deal of information that was collected in the survey has not been made publicly available. The prevalence of sexual assault among all racial categories, and with a breakdown of racial categories by gender, is absent from the Campus Climate Survey report released by the university, even though these demographics were collected in the survey. Rates of sexual assault among people with disabilities are similarly absent. These are just some of the obviously missing analyses, and it is hard to know what other important correlations and findings might be discovered in a thorough analysis.

The data from the Campus Climate Survey were originally analyzed by NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent social research organization that released the original Campus Climate Survey report. Yet, Stanford is fortunate to have some of the most qualified data scientists in the world on its campus, including in the department of sociology where I am a graduate student, who could revisit the data to find more meaningful and nuanced results. Having the faculty analyze the data would also provide more transparency. During analysis, the data could be stored in Stanford’s Secure Data Center, which is equipped to keep sensitive data secure.

Stanford spent a great deal of money and resources collecting these data, and the university would do well to immediately invest the time and energy necessary to fully report on the survey’s results. This could best be achieved by authorizing Stanford researchers to analyze the data in full. At the very least, Stanford could work with NORC to release a more comprehensive report containing categories of sexual assault and misconduct that align with those of our peer schools and more comprehensive information about rates of sexual assault along all demographics of the student population.

The Stanford student body, prospective students and their parents deserve to know the full statistics of sexual assault on campus and have data that we can compare with our peers. Stanford President John Hennessy said that the survey’s original findings “underscore the need for all of us in the Stanford community to play an active role in developing solutions and modeling behavior.” This is certainly true. Yet, part of the solution lies in understanding the scope of the problem. This should be a top priority as the community develops solutions.

 

Contact Chloe Grace Hart at cghart ‘at’ stanford.edu

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