Surveys, Secrecy, and Sexual Assault

A phrase made famous during the Watergate hearings was, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Variations on that question are now being asked at the University of Virginia following gang-rape allegations, and elsewhere as well.

Related questions arise: What do college and university presidents know about the prevalence of sexual assault just a few blocks from their offices—and what must they do to find out? What do they know about the efficacy of their own policies?

One might expect a prestigious group like the Association of American Universities to take a leadership role in these matters. In reality, however, the AAU wants member universities to commit by December 1 to a survey of sexual violence that will be kept largely secret from the public, including potential critics. Nearly 50 experts in sexual assault have criticized the plan in three open letters, but the AAU has continued to encourage presidents to spend $5-million on a survey that hasn’t even been written yet.

Accurate measurement of problems is key to crafting solutions that actually work at . Are colleges failing or helping their students in this regard? And is the AAU engaged in an honest effort to dig out the truth about sexual violence in American colleges? Or might its work mask the true extent of the problem?

When both the White House and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, and Claire McCaskill, of Missouri, announced in the spring that they would push to require campus-climate surveys, the AAU sprang into action. But what were its motives?

That seemed to be answered in May, when the AAU’s president, Hunter Rawlings III, sent a memorandum to member presidents in which he talked about the need to “get ahead of this issue before a federally designed survey is mandated for us.” To head off such a prospect, the AAU would design its own. In a letter sent to presidents this month, Rawlings said the AAU would “use the results to help inform national conversations with federal policymakers.”

“National conversations” is a code term for lobbying. According to Rawlings last week, when institutions receive their campus results next summer, “AAU will require that universities agree NOT to publish or communicate survey findings internally (to the student population) or externally” until the AAU can engage its “national conversations” strategy. (The emphasis was provided by Rawlings.)

The lobbying will be enhanced by a provision that the AAU’s private contractor will, according to the association, “keep individual variability in sampling and survey design and implementation across universities to a minimum.”

So what is the harm if institutions go ahead with the AAU survey? First, with a high price tag, it seems unlikely that other, more scientifically valid surveys will be performed. But there is an even bigger problem: secrecy. Sexual assault has long been shrouded in secrecy, and secrecy will be the hallmark of the AAU’s survey on sexual assault.

The AAU’s request for proposals on August 20 states that all intellectual property “related to this project” will be “retained and solely owned by AAU.” This means that the survey itself will be privately owned, which in turn means that the survey questions and methodology can be kept from public eyes.

If the survey omits important topics or asks questions in a way that downplays the problem, nobody will know in advance. Expert academic researchers in sexual assault, of which there are scores in the United States, will not be able to provide feedback in advance of what may well become the only survey on their campuses.

One of the most respected scientists in this field, Louise Fitzgerald, a professor emerita of psychology of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said about the planned AAU survey: “To ignore the combined experience of the country’s most prominent and experienced researchers and attempt to reinvent the wheel is intellectual arrogance of the worst sort. Worse, it risks compromising the validity and thus policy usefulness of the project.”

Even so, the AAU is promising colleges that the results from their campuses will be kept secret from other colleges, the public, and politicians. It emphasizes in its letter to each president that “university-specific information will be shared only with that university.” The possibility of doing comparative analysis to determine which colleges have policies that actually work may become impossible.

It seems unlikely that this promise can be fully kept, in light of robust public-records laws in most states. The National Science Foundation’s guide for grants stresses that researchers are “expected to encourage and facilitate” sharing. But some colleges will try to abide by AAU restrictions. With freedom-of-information requests the only way to get information, any comparison of data between one campus and another will be relegated to future researchers, instead of being provided to policy makers who need the information in a timely fashion—and to young students who want to know where safety and danger lie.

Colleges committed to open access to information for , scientific methods, and free speech need to approach the problem of campus sexual violence with the same rigor, reflexivity, and transparency that they demand of the peer-reviewed research for term paper writing that remains a cornerstone of their mission.

The betrayal of rape is made even more scarring by the behavior of those in institutions that students believed would help them—what Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, has labeled “institutional betrayal.” Colleges need to understand that secret studies of sexual assault will continue the harm already being done to survivors.

If colleges accede to concerns about public image and lobbying efforts by privatizing information about sexual violence on their campuses, they risk being seen by the courageous and persistent survivors who have shined a light on this problem as caring more about their public images than about the lives of the young women and men who seek educations on their campuses and expose themselves to risk of life-shattering sexual violence in the process.

What will individual colleges and the public learn in the next few months? Will it be accurate? We may never know.

John E. Bonine is a professor of law at the University of Oregon.

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