AAU’s Planned Sexual-Assault Survey Draws Backlash From Some Researchers

November 18, 2014

Last Friday the Association of American Universities sent a letter to 75 university presidents and chancellors urging their campuses to participate in a sexual-assault climate survey. On Monday, in response, 16 sexual-assault researchers sent a letter to those same university presidents and chancellors urging them not to participate in the survey.

So why would researchers who study sexual assault speak out against a proposed survey that would gather more information about that long-ignored national problem?

One reason, the researchers say, is a lack of transparency. Universities are being asked to commit to a survey that, they write in the letter, is "proprietary and therefore not available for scientific examination."

According to the letter from the AAU, while aggregated results will be shared widely, the results for a specific university will be provided only to that university. The researchers have also raised doubts about who will design the survey and worry that, rather than bring more attention to the issue, the AAU’s survey "may well relieve institutions of the incentive to perform valid surveys conducted by those with expertise in researching campus sexual assault."

One signer of the letter was Jennifer J. Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. Ms. Freyd, a longtime sexual-assault researcher, conducted a survey on her campus, released this fall, that found that more than a third of women had experienced at least one nonconsensual sexual encounter.

In an interview on Monday, Ms. Freyd said more information can be good as long as "the process is open and everyone is following good scientific practice"—but she doesn’t think that’s the case here. She argued that the AAU’s survey was intended to allow universities to say they’re taking the issue seriously and pre-empt further criticism. "Universities are going to say, ‘We’ve done our duty,’" Ms. Freyd said. "There can be a survey done that does more harm than good."

Mary P. Koss agrees. Ms. Koss, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona who is considered a pioneer in the study of sexual violence, is worried that the real purpose of the survey is to counter efforts by the federal government to examine and deal with sexual violence on campuses. "I’m concerned because the AAU’s stated purpose is to get ahead of the federal initiative, which I interpret to mean getting around the federal initiative," she said.

Ms. Koss and Ms. Freyd also object to what they say is a lack of experts in the field of sexual assault involved in developing the survey. Among those on the survey's design team are administrators and some professors who don’t study sexual assault. It’s as if, according to Ms. Freyd, you were interested in "finding the genetics of Ebola, and you put together your research team to study Ebola, and you have researchers from other fields, general counsels, and administrators."

Those criticisms aren’t fair, said Mollie B. Flounlacker, associate vice president for federal relations at the AAU and the project manager for the association’s campus sexual-assault survey. A number of experts in the field of sexual assault are involved with the survey, she said, along with administrators and others who can ensure a successful campus response.

As for the assertion that the association’s survey is mainly about universities’ attempting to head off bad press rather than deal with the problem, Ms. Flounlacker said that’s not true. "Presidents are serious about making progress on this issue," she said. "The reason we’re doing this is not a political one."

Ms. Flounlacker said it was a shame that the researchers were denigrating the AAU’s survey, calling the association’s effort an important step forward. "There’s never going to be a perfect product, but we tried to be incredibly careful with involving the right people who are going to be a part of this effort," she said. "It’s unfortunate that members of our community are not going to be supportive."

Sarah L. Cook shares the concerns of those who signed the letter. Ms. Cook, a professor of psychology at Georgia State University who studies violence against women, didn’t sign the letter because she was a consultant on a competing research proposal submitted to the AAU. She worries that university presidents are being asked to involve their campuses in a survey that hasn’t yet been developed.

"If I were a university president, I’d think twice before signing on the dotted line," she said. "I’d like to know what I was getting."