College Consortium: Unpacking the AAU Survey Data

Aug 22nd, 1970

By Marian Firke Program Coordinator (Prevention and Education) This quarter, we are introducing a new, regular feature to Frontline. Our College Consortium column will focus on key developments concerning college sexual assault prevention and response. As our College Consortium continues to grow, we hope that this will be another medium for us to support Maryland’s colleges in universities as they support survivors on their campuses. For our first College Consortium feature, we are sharing our take on the recent climate survey results published by the American Association of Universities. While responses to the study have been mixed, one feature of the study is hard to ignore: the $2.5 million price tag. With victim services and prevention programs chronically underfunded, we ask: is this the best use of our resources?
This fall, the American Association of Universities (AAU) released a major report outlining the findings of campus climate surveys conducted at 27 universities. The AAU found that on average, 21.2% of all college seniors reported that they had experienced some form of sexual violence since they began college. For women, this number jumped to 33.1%, or one in three female college seniors. These results echo previous studies’, such as those reported from The Washington Post’s recent poll and numerous other studies conducted over the past 30 years. Unlike previous studies, this 27-site study forced many of America’s elite schools to grapple with the knowledge that rates of violence on their own campuses were similar to published data. As their reactions show, there is no longer any room for students, parents, or administrators to reassure themselves that they are in a protective bubble or somehow exceptional. For the 27 schools surveyed, these results emphasize that sexual violence isn’t just some other school’s problem; it’s everyone’s problem. MCASA’s Executive Director, Lisae Jordan, commented on the report for CBS Channel 13 earlier this season. “This is really just one more wake-up call and I don’t know how many more the schools need. They have got to start taking this seriously,” she said. [caption id="attachment_7993" align="alignnone" width="300"]Executive Lisae Jordan, Esq. is interviewed about the AAU Campus Climate Study Results (To see the full coverage, including transcript and video versions, please click here.)[/caption]   The AAU study is expansive and provides rich data about the current climate on the campuses surveyed. However, there are many questions left unanswered and several critiques of the study have emerged.   First, while the study has been lauded for including questions about sexual orientation and gender, it has also been criticized for the way that these results were lumped together. One element of the report that has attracted attention is the advent of the descriptor “TGQN” as an umbrella term encompassing Transgender, Genderqueer/Gender non-conforming, Questioning, and Not Listed [on the survey] identities.  The survey reported many statistics broken down into “male,” “female,” and “TGQN” subpopulations, in essence treating all trans and gender nonconforming populations as a homogeneous grouping. Elsewhere in the report, some statistics are reported for the percentage of “female and TGQN” respondents, which reflects a deep lack of awareness for concerns facing trans students. (For example, reporting data from trans men in a category associated primarily with the identifier “female” is deeply problematic.) Harmony Rodriguez, a prominent activist for transgender rights and college sexual assault reform, weighed in on the report. “By lumping us together in one group, they erased the nuances of anti-trans violence,” she said. “Their survey failed to note that it’s often trans women and gender non-conforming AMAB [assigned male at birth] people who not only experience the violence of rape and then go on to further suffer the violence of erasure and denial of support.” She also emphasized that trans students’ safety on campus cannot be understood without looking at anti-trans violence holistically. “Sexual violence against trans students is often also accompanied by non-sexual ordinary physical violence. That’s one of the biggest issues facing trans students, that the campus—for many reasons—is violently unsafe for trans people.” Prior to the release of the AAU results, there was little data on how sexual violence impacts trans college students. However, there are a number of other surveys that have studied violence, including sexual violence, against transgender and gender non-conforming populations more generally. For example, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) conducts a biennial school climate survey that includes questions about middle and high school students’ experiences with violence related to their gender identities, including sexual violence. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey (now the U.S. Trans Survey) incorporated a greater focus on gender diversity and provides more nuance about the types of violence experienced. This study also asked about respondents’ student status, though it did not seek to answer questions specifically about those students’ college climate or experience. Rodriguez noted, “Almost every other study done regarding trans people and violence has looked at trans groups independently. In that way, they were able to understand the violence more.” Many of these studies have also examined how gender intersects with other identities, including racial and ethnic identities. In doing so, these studies have been able to create a more nuanced and holistic picture of anti-trans violence than the one provided by AAU in this report.   Second, there were some methodological concerns regarding the validity of the results. In particular, commentary has included concerns about the low response rate. Since the average survey response rate was approximately 19%, it is possible that the study was affected by non-response bias and that the results should not be seen as representative. Slate’s Nora Caplan-Bricker also points out that although many variables were measured, including school size, public vs. private institutions, and undergraduate vs. graduate student status, the study was ultimately unsuccessful in disentangling which aspects of a college influence the rates of sexual violence, which varied widely between schools. The lack of strong, consistent statistical significance is an indicator that the variables responsible for the measured differences between schools were not studied by this survey. It has also been pointed out that there are discrepancies between the number of reported rapes recorded by the surveys and the number of rapes reported by the colleges. Under the Clery Act, colleges are required to report anonymized incidence numbers for a list of crimes occurring at the school, including sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking. This discrepancy would suggest at best that students do not understand the difference between confidential and reporting resources, and at worse that schools are not disclosing all of the reports they receive. The disconnect between students’ responses on the survey and the Clery reporting data from their schools is not a methodological issue with the survey itself per se, but it does indicate the ways in which it can be hard to unravel confounded variables such as students’ differing interpretations of a question and potential underreporting or institutional silencing on the part of a college or university.   Third, there is one number in the report that stood out to many: the $2.5 million price tag for developing, administering, and analyzing the survey. While it is essential that sexual violence elimination efforts receive appropriate financial support, it is also troubling to see so many resources dedicated to replicating past studies of prevalence. The AAU report provides a small amount of new information, in the sense that it indicates a number of factors which do not explain differences in rates of sexual violence.  In terms of new knowledge to be applied, however, the study comes up short. Instead of devoting those resources to prevention research or to chronically underfunded victim services, the $2.5 million price tag of this study simply confirmed what has been known and repeated for decades. The cost of administering the large-scale study also may have inadvertently made the task of conducting campus climate surveys feel out of reach for a lot of institutions. In reality, there are a lot of free resources available to assist colleges in this process and ensure that colleges are able to invest their time and resources in data analysis, bolstering response protocols and victim services, and developing comprehensive prevention programs. One group providing such assistance is the Administrator Researcher Campus Climate Consortium (ARC3), a collaborative team of researchers and student affairs professionals working to provide resources in response to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. In addition to fact sheets about sexual assault perpetration, victimization, and the campus serial rapist assumption, they have guidance and models for climate surveys available by request. There is no charge for accessing or using these resources. There are also several other sources providing free resources for climate survey implementation. The Rutgers University campus climate resources, which are part of the White House Task Force Resource Guide, are also freely available and include a model survey, guidance and results from the survey’s administration at Rutgers. In Maryland, campus climate surveys are now required by law to be administered every two years, and the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) has released its own guidance for their administration given this legislative requirement.   As educators and as a society, we should be willing to invest in services for survivors and in research that can help us improve our prevention practices--but it is wasteful to spend so much on a survey that reaffirms what we already know to be true. We know how big the problem is. We have known how big the problem is for close to 30 years. It is time to focus on investing resources in prevention programs and response protocols that will actually change campus culture, rather than continuing to sit on the sidelines.  
This article was featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Frontline.

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