How widespread is sexual violence at BU? How do students feel about the campus atmosphere around it, and about their role in intervening to stop it? What happens in the wake of an assault, and do students know where to go for help?
Whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students, English-language learners, or on- or off-campus residents, BU students are being asked to weigh in on those questions in a survey emailed to them earlier this month. Respondents have through March 31 to answer the confidential survey, which takes no more than 15 minutes to complete. The results will guide University efforts to improve its response to sexual assault. A list of frequently asked questions about the survey and answers is here.
“This is one of the most critical issues facing campuses today,” says Emily Rothman, a School of Public Health associate professor of community health sciences and a member of the 16-person task force that designed the survey. For survivors of sexual assault, Rothman says, the survey is “your chance—you get to stand up and be counted.” BU will administer the survey on a recurring basis.
As of March 24, only about 1,025 students, of the 27,000 who received the survey, had completed it. Without student participation, it will be “more difficult to obtain a thorough analysis” of the extent of the problem and how well the University is responding, says Peter Fiedler (COM’77), vice president for administrative services and cochair of the task force with Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore (SED’87).
President Robert A. Brown created the task force, which includes faculty and administrators, last July. Another member, Sophie Godley (SPH’15), an SPH clinical assistant professor of community health sciences and director of undergraduate programs at the school, says the survey design benefits from a task force that has both scholars and practicing counselors who work with students every day.
The task force test-drove a version of the survey among students in the fall and earlier this semester, tweaking the questions based on feedback, Rothman and Godley say. Members also reviewed other institutions’ surveys and federal guidelines to develop BU-specific questions.
Some questions make explicit reference to anatomy and sexual behaviors. The survey also asks about sexual misconduct, including harassment, that the task force warns might upset some students. It advises participants to skip any question that discomforts them or to stop answering questions at any time during the survey.
The group is aware that skipped questions could skew the results, members say. In particular, if victims of assault don’t answer, that likely “would give us an underestimate of the problem on our campus,” Rothman says. “We will have to interpret the results thinking that this is at least an indication [of the problem].”
“There is always a risk [with surveys] with sensitive subject matter that the folks you want to hear from are not able to speak with you,” agrees Godley. The task force did everything possible to address that possibility, by seeking student feedback in designing the questions and including scholars who have worked with such studies and their limitations before, she says.
BU is among dozens of universities whose sexual assault policies are under review by the US Department of Education. While studies conflict, several suggest that up to 20 or 25 percent of college women are victims of sexual violence.
The BU survey presents an opportunity, Godley says, to start a conversation, not about specific incidents that happen on campus—though those must be pursued and prosecuted, she adds—but about the climate: “Are students feeling supported? Do they know the University cares about them? Do they know where to go [for help]? Do we have really big problems with sexism, with gender equity?”
In an email that accompanied the survey, Brown wrote that BU “is committed to ensuring a safe, healthy, and welcoming environment for our students. Learning about the experiences of students and the degree to which students feel safe and respected will help us better understand how to prevent sexual misconduct and assist all students.” He wrote that the survey answers will help the University provide better support for those who have experienced sexual violence and assist in developing additional “policies, prevention tools, and education approaches.”
There is no deadline by which the task force, which includes experienced data analysts, must crunch the numbers and report them and its recommendations to Brown. The results will be shared with the community.
The task force is “a perfect working group,” Fiedler says, all in synch on the importance of their mission. “We’re very passionate about this. We’re very concerned about making sure we get an accurate snapshot” of the campus environment.