UT to participate in controversial sexual assault survey

Josh Willis and Samantha Ketterer

UT will participate in a nationwide campus sexual assault survey that many of its peer institutions rejected, followed by a second, in-house survey later this year, to gather information about the prevalence of sexual assault on campus.  

The survey, conducted by the Association of American Universities, will be designed to help university officials better understand sexual assault on college campuses. Some institutions have expressed concern that the survey, which will cost each university $87,500, will not be specific enough to address the needs of each individual campus.

UT is one of 60 members of the AAU, and President William Powers Jr. serves as the group’s former chairman. Of the 60 member institutions in the United States, only 27 members — and one non-member university — agreed to distribute the survey. Powers announced UT’s participation during a faculty council meeting last week.

16 policy researchers from 13 universities expressed their problems with the AAU survey in a Nov. 17 letter, alleging that only two members of the advisory committee that designed the survey have experience in sexual assault assessment. 

“We are writing to you to ask urgently that each of you not commit to signing an $85,000 contract on a sexual assault and campus climate survey with a consultant for the [AAU],” the letter read. “Accuracy of data regarding sexual violence has been known for years to be very sensitive to the way it is measured … we have [concerns] about the not-yet-designed AAU survey, which neither academic experts nor university presidents have seen.”

Barry Toiv, vice president of public affairs at AAU, said each participating university will receive its own institutional data, while aggregate data about all 27 participating universities will be made public.

Toiv said each university will be allowed to include a few institution-specific questions in the survey their students receive.

“Except in one respect, the survey will be identical to all institutions,” Toiv said. “Each university will be able to individualize five questions, so they can focus on specific programs, offices, policies at their own institutions that may have certain needs.”

Beyond the AAU survey, the University will conduct its own sexual assault climate survey that will provide more campus-specific results, according to UT spokesman Gary Susswein. Susswein said UT officials hope to conduct the campus-specific survey next fall and said the second survey’s cost is still unknown.

“The AAU questions will be used across universities as part of [their] own survey,” Susswein said. “But by doing our own survey, we’re hoping to get a fuller picture of what’s going on around campus.”

Steve Kloehn, associate vice president of news and public affairs at the University of Chicago, said UChicago chose to develop its own survey in place of the AAU survey. Kloehn said the university would prefer to use techniques developed by their own staff.

“University of Chicago has announced plans to undertake its own climate survey, which will be shaped in part by a committee of our own faculty members who have a particular expertise and understanding of our culture and the needs of this campus,” Kloehn said.

Toiv acknowledged the cost of performing a large survey between dozens of universities, but said the $87,500 operating cost is justified. 

“The truth is that quality research of this kind, particularly research involving this many potential participants, is expensive,” Toiv said. “One of the things that makes it expensive is the effort that goes into notifying, encouraging students to participate.”

Despite the criticism the survey has generated, Susswein said the UT administration felt it was a good investment toward understanding sexual assault on campus.

“We understand that there was a robust conversation, but we do believe that participating is the best option for our university,” Susswein said. “There’s really no downside in doing this survey.”

Clarification: This article has been amended from its original version. There are 62 member instutitions of the AAU, including two Canadian institutions. The survey was only offered to U.S. members. Further, each university will receive institution-specific survey results, while aggregate data will be released publicly.