New UT research project addresses sexual, domestic and community violence

Will Clark

UT School of Social Work launched a new, multi-year research project last week to better understand student experiences with sexual assault and interpersonal violence.

UT System Chancellor William McRaven requested a project across the System to assess campus sexual assault “climate” after seeing a similar survey conducted on UT-Austin’s campus.

The resulting project, called the Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments project, officially launched when the researchers sent an email last Monday to all UT-Austin freshmen asking them to participate in
a survey.

Some aspects of the CLASE project began last year, however, when researchers conducted focus groups at other UT System institutions such as UT-El Paso, UT-Dallas, UT Medical Branch and UT-Austin. The project is unique because it includes 13 of the 14 UT System institutions and takes place over four years, according to CLASE project director Caitlin Sulley.

“It’s critical for students to learn their voices so that our institutions can respond to them and support them and prevent these forms of violence from happening,” Sulley said. “Their voices are so valuable
and critical.”

The study aims to survey 1,200 students once a semester over four years to gauge students’ experiences with forms of violence since they enrolled at UT. The only UT System institution that did not participate was the UT Health Science Center at Tyler, which had too few members to participate and preserve anonymity.

Wanda Mercer, a UT System associate vice chancellor, said while these issues are not more pressing at UT than anywhere else, the campuses have an obligation to support the students who suffer from sexual and
domestic violence.

“Our campuses are microcosms of society,” Mercer said. “So it would be silly of us to think that these kinds of things didn’t exist on our campuses.”

Sulley said the research team hopes to empower students through their work and will collaborate with Title IX coordinators, deans of students and administrators at the various UT institutions who work with students on a daily basis.

“We want to be able to understand what happens over the course of the college experience and to use what we have learned to better serve students and prevent these forms of violence from happening in the first place,” Sulley said.

Mercer described the project taking place in “shallow dives,” “medium dives” and “deep dives,” with varying levels on engagement with participants. The shallow dive consists of analyzing the data from the climate survey, while the medium dive researchers conduct focus groups with students from other UT institutions, and the deep dive will include tracking students’ experiences at UT Austin over four years.

“The comprehensive nature of this research project is going to give us lots of information,” Mercer said. “I’m proud that we are doing this significant research project to hear our students, but more importantly to respond to our students.”

Physics freshman Greg Pauloski said he chose to participate in the study because a research member came to his UGS class and personally explained the importance of this research. He also said the prospect of a $20 gift card from the University Co-Op encouraged him.

“[The researchers] explained the premise of the survey was to get an understanding around the culture around things like domestic violence here at UT, how prevalent it was, how often it’s something I see, engage with and encounter on a daily basis,” Pauloski said. “Hopefully the answers I gave on the survey helped them to improve the community here at UT over the next four years.”