UT System’s expansive sexual assault study will create a major foundation for future prevention efforts

Mary Dolan

The terrible issue of sexual assault on university campuses is a continual problem that has been especially prominent in the media, with numerous high-profile cases over the past several years. The negative attention has prompted universities across the nation to take proactive measures against sexual violence. Fortunately, the University of Texas System is beginning to develop such measures with an extensive study on sexual assault specific to its campuses.

According to the UT System, the study will be the most comprehensive sexual assault study ever attempted in higher education. The $1.7 million dollar project will begin this fall and operate over multiple years. Its components will range from online student questionnaires and faculty surveys to a four-year study of incoming freshmen that identifies the “psychological and economic impact of sexual violence.” The expansive study will provide the informational foundation from which UT’s future sexual assault prevention programs emerge.

At the end of the study, the results will be used by the UT System campuses to foster a safer campus environment. By using fresh, relevant data collected from students and staff, UT will be able to create policies that are specifically catered to their campuses and student needs, which will be beneficial to all UT students.

This is good news for students. Many colleges have come under fire from students and media alike for their allegedly poor handling of sexual assault cases. These students have accused their schools of trying to downplay assaults or of siding with alleged attackers, and these accusations have led to several national stories concerning these students and colleges.

Instead of waiting to be added to the list of suspicious colleges, UT has opted to start fighting sexual assault when its campuses are not in the spotlight. Wanda Mercer, the UT System’s associate vice chancellor for student affairs, said: “This study is a proactive approach to an important issue. We are not waiting for a high-profile incident to occur before we do it.”

A unique feature of the study will be what the UT System is calling a “deep dive”: At four UT System campuses, including UT Austin, researchers will gather data from students, staff and law enforcement to figure out how sexual assaults are reported, how the colleges respond and how the police get involved afterward. This in-depth method will allow researchers to see how colleges and police respond to real cases brought to them by students, rather than vaguely fight the concept of sexual assault without reference to campus specific needs.

UT will then be able to come up with solutions to sexual assault prevention and management problems — real, concrete action that will help students feel as if they can report attacks safely and easily. Unfortunately, given the in-depth nature of the study, its execution and implementation will take many years.

But, by opting to conduct such an expansive study, the University of Texas System has let students know that it will not wait for negative publicity and further assaults to force its hand. Its work will ensure that students fight against sexual assault and feel safe and valued on their campuses.

Dolan is a journalism major from Abilene. Follow her on Twitter @mimimdolan.