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Students, alumni, faculty pressure Stanford to revisit Campus Climate Survey

Earlier this quarter, 1,975 undergraduate students — more than 90 percent of those who voted — voted in favor of a referendum asking Stanford to replace its Campus Climate Survey with that of the Association of American Universities, and to issue said survey every three years. On April 13, two days after the election results were announced, news broke that Stanford’s administration had decided to stand by their survey, though they also announced their intention to reissue it in 2018. In the weeks that followed, students, alumni, and faculty took to a variety of platforms to react, often critically, to the administration’s decision. The Daily explores the developments regarding the Campus Climate Survey and how the university intends to address its critics.

“I think that, with this particular issue, people have lost sight of the fact that students are the heart of this,” said Madeleine Lippey ’18. “Students experience this place on a daily basis, and students need to be in charge of student culture and issues related to student culture.”

Lippey has been involved in the student crusade against sexual violence on campus since at least last September, when she founded the Fearless Conference in New York City. The Fearless Conference collects a variety of speakers to address a number of topics, from sex education and consent to masculinity and male allyship; Stanford hosted a Fearless Conference on April 23, at which the fallout from the Campus Climate Survey was a hot topic.

“The overwhelming consensus was that, to be honest, it’s almost laughable that we haven’t done anything about [the survey],” Lippey said. “It’s just, how could we not have?”

One of the guest speakers at the Fearless Conference was Michele Dauber, Frederick I. Richman Professor of Law and professor, by courtesy, of Sociology. Over the last several years, Dauber has been an outspoken critic of Stanford’s Campus Climate Survey and Stanford’s broader policies on sexual assault. Dauber explained that the survey’s most infamous figure—that only 1.9 percent of respondents were sexually assaulted—was the result of a narrow definition of “sexual assault” (included in Appendix A of the survey) compared to that of other schools, combined with questions that further filtered student responses.

“Stanford counts as assault only sexual penetration or oral sex carried out through force or under incapacitation,” Dauber said. “Obviously if you’re going to do a survey and you’re going to announce how much sexual assault you have using that definition, how you measure incapacitation really matters because that’s going to affect the outcome.”

Dauber found the incapacitation question particularly misleading; both the survey used by the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — whose survey Stanford claims to have based their own on — feature one question asking respondents if they reported nonconsensual sexual contact when they were asleep, unconscious, or incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol, to which an affirmative response would be coded as a sexual assault. Stanford, on the other hand, broke their question into two, asking if the respondent if they were taken advantage of while unconscious and if they were drunk or high; students who answered “yes” to the latter question but not the former were counted as sexual misconduct. Even in the case of students who checked both items, only instances of vaginal or anal intercourse, digital penetration, oral copulation, or penetration with a foreign object were considered sexual assault.

This, said Dauber, produced an “unrealistically low reporting of the number of students who have experienced sexual assault,” although she did add that she thought that the university “just made a mistake” rather than maliciously skewed the data.

“Unless we think we have very, very much less sexual assault than our peer schools […] then we ought to be getting about the business of why we got a number so much lower,” Dauber said.

ASSU, past and present, pushes for reform

Sexual assault on campus and what to do about it has been a high priority issue for ASSU executives and senators alike for the last several years. Over the 2014-2015 school year, Elizabeth Woodson ’15, President of the ASSU, co-chaired Provost John Etchemendy’s Task Force on Sexual Assault. The Task Force reviewed the university’s policies regarding sexual assault and published its findings in April 2015, and concluded that Stanford had room to improve its preventative educational efforts and psychological support for survivors. In October of that year, Woodson wrote that she was “deeply saddened” by the confusing language of the Campus Climate Survey.

Former ASSU Executives John-Lancaster Finley ’16 and Brandon Hill ’16 spent much of their leadership in the aftermath of the Campus Climate Survey. Both Finley and Hill were skeptical of the figure that only 1.9 percent of students were victims of sexual assault, and expressed concerns that a “narrative of violence” underscored the low statistic.

“We can no longer treat this problem as if it’s outsiders coming into Stanford,” Hill said. “Here at Stanford it’s a crisis, and we can’t pretend like it’s not.”

Finley responded to his partner by branching out from sexual assault into the broader category of sexual violence.

“Stanford’s particular definition of sexual assault covers a specific type of prohibited conduct, while there’s a broader category of sexual violence that people experience on this campus than reflected in that 1.9 percent number,” Finley said.

Finley and Hill pushed for a mandatory, in-residence program that would allow for critical discussion of issues such as gender identity and media portrayals of sex. The program is still in the works, but their successors, Jackson Beard ’17 and Amanda Edelman ’17, have expressed an eagerness to see the program through.

“Systemic change is incredibly, incredibly important, but it takes a while to build, and this is such an important and relevant issue that we want to see immediate as well as long-lasting change,” Edelman said.

“When students have so much consensus within the student body and feel so strongly in favor of a certain goal, administration should take that seriously,” Beard said.

Beard also stated that, even if the figure that only 1.9 percent of students was accurate, it was “unacceptable.”

“The survey, however flawed it may be, proved that [sexual assault] is a reality here,” Beard said. “I’m hopeful that, as we start meeting with administrators, that’s the feeling that they share.”

Members of the ASSU Undergraduate Senate hope to continue the fight against sexual violence. Senators Matthew Cohen ’18 and Hattie Gawande ’18 both served in the previous Senate and frequently collaborated on the issue; Cohen was the author of the referendum to replace the Campus Climate Survey, and he was pleased to see the student response to it.

“I never thought that we were ever going to get an outcome that high,” Cohen said. “It was just mind-blowing.”

Cohen added that many of his peers on the Senate, veterans and newcomers alike, share his commitment to ending sexual violence.

“A lot of the new Senators ran on a platform of combating sexual violence, and so I really look forward to them putting their words into action,” Cohen said.

In particular, Shanta Katipamula ’19, the new Senate chair, expressed interest in bringing a program named Callisto to campus. Callisto allows survivors to document an assault, and leaves them with three options thereafter: “Record” saves a time-stamped file of the event in case the survivor is not yet ready to report it; “Report” submits the file to the school’s Title IX Coordinator; “Match” only reports the incident if another survivor reports being assaulted by the same perpetrator, as is the case in as many as 90 percent of sexual assaults.

“I think Callisto is hugely empowering to survivors, and just the fact that it is an online reporting system makes it a lot easier,” Katipamula said.

Letters to Faculty Senate, Etchemendy

The Faculty Senate waded into the debate in their last meeting on April 28 when they unanimously approved a resolution to release more data from the Campus Climate Survey. In its full text, the resolution recommends that Stanford “review the nomenclature used to describe the survey’s data” — namely, to re-categorize what constitutes sexual assault and sexual misconduct. They endorsed reissuing the survey every three years, although they declined to adopt the AAU survey.

The ASSU received the Faculty Senate’s decision very positively.

“It speaks to a consensus and a synergy between students and faculty members,” Beard said. “What unites a lot of people is the curiosity over what other information is there, because a very limited amount of data was released.”

“I think it’s important to separate out the faculty response from the administration response,” Gawande said, “because the Faculty Senate has been wonderful.”

“Being in that room with the Faculty Senate was a hopeful moment,” Finley said. “It was so incredible and inspiring to hear the faculty talk about this issue with such compassion and such understanding.”

Although Dauber was eager to see more data released from the survey, she remained critical of the phrasing of the incapacitation question, as well as questions that were not asked in the survey — namely the location on campus where an incident happened, whether in a residence hall, row house, or outside.

“I would love to see more data — that’s great — but it doesn’t solve the bad question problem, and it also doesn’t solve the unasked question problem,” Dauber said.

Dauber was also one of 27 faculty members who signed a letter to the Faculty Senate, dated April 14, expressing disappointment that Stanford had refused to entertain the student referendum. The letter asked the Faculty Senate to consider the referendum and replace the Campus Climate Survey with the AAU’s standardized survey, which is used by over two dozen schools across the nation, including Harvard and Yale.

“The students ask only that when it is repeated that the AAU instrument be used in order to ensure that Stanford uses a standard definition of ‘sexual assault’ and that its results will allow for easy comparability with peer schools,” the letter said.

That same day, a letter addressed to the Stanford Administration, Board of Trustees, and Faculty Senate was signed by 40 alumni, which had grown to 93 by April 19. The undersigned alumni took issue with Stanford’s refusal to revise the Campus Climate Survey, and threatened to withhold donations to the university if they did not reconsider.

Etchemendy wrote a response on April 17, defending Stanford’s choice to not participate in the AAU survey and explaining the significance of the 1.9 percent figure.

“We will continue to emphasize that our deep concern is with all prohibited sexual conduct and all forms of sexual and relationship violence, however defined,” Etchemendy wrote. “The results of the climate survey clearly substantiate that concern.”

Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Jacob Nierenberg

Jacob Nierenberg

Jacob Nierenberg '17 is a coterm pursuing an M.A. in Communication on the Journalism track. The program is very busy and often precludes him from writing for The Daily, but he enjoys contributing stories and music reviews when he is able to. Prior to beginning the program, he completed a B.A. in American Studies. His hobbies include spending time with friends and listening to music, and he is always delighted to meet people as enthusiastic about music as he is.