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We Speak results mark end of three-year survey program

On Nov. 9, the University released the results of its third annual “We Speak” survey on sexual misconduct, marking the end of the program’s three-year run. In the future, the University plans to shift to a data collection approach that draws on multiple sources related to the prevalence and effects of sexual misconduct rather than focusing on a single comprehensive survey.

This year’s survey found a significant increase in students’ awareness of resources, and the proportion of undergraduate women who reported experiencing sexual misconduct in the past academic year decreased from one in four women to one in five.

Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter explained that the “We Speak” survey was designed to last only three years, partly to prevent survey fatigue, an effect where response rates become lower as the survey population tires of being asked to participate.

“We want to be particularly protective of those who might be re-traumatized by being asked to fill out the survey over and over again,” Minter said.

A report on the survey’s findings explains will pivot toward a “data ecosystem model” to track the issues now encompassed in the We Speak report. According to a resource document developed by a range of universities and cited in the “We Speak” report, this kind of model “emphasizes synthesis across data sources as a goal,” with the implication that large-scale comparative surveys such as the “We Speak” project are best conducted at least four years apart and complemented by a diverse array of other data collections.

“We can use focus groups, we can look at other sources of data from disciplinary matters, we can look at a variety of other kinds of data that might be relevant like mental health data from the campus,” Minter explained.

Although the format and wording of the survey’s questions have remained largely constant across the past three years, there were a few changes to the 2017 model based on feedback from the previous two years, according to Vice Provost for Institutional Research Jed Marsh.

One change was an attempt to better address the experience of graduate students by re-ordering questions so that questions concerning their specific experiences were clustered together. Also, as feedback from last year’s survey indicated that some students found it stressful to recount the details of their experiences with sexual misconduct, more intensive follow-up questions in the 2017 survey were made optional. Perhaps the biggest change, however, was reshaping the survey’s approach to stalking, according to Marsh.

“The most salient change is we restructured the question we asked about stalking,” Marsh said. “We did so in more descriptive text to explain how we were defining stalking.”

Minter noted that the findings of the past three years indicate a decrease since 2015 in the percentage of the student body reporting that they have experienced some form of inappropriate sexual conduct, though this year’s numbers did show a slight increase from the 2016 survey’s results. This year, 16 percent of respondents reported experiencing sexual misconduct, including unwanted or attempted sexual contact, stalking, an abusive intimate relationship, and sexual harassment. In contrast, the 2016 survey found that 15 percentof students had experienced some form of inappropriate sexual behavior, and the 2015 survey placed this figure at 20 percent.

Moreover, numbers indicate that more students might be learning about resources and reporting options surrounding sexual misconduct. The 2017 survey found that 87 percent of all respondents know what resources to turn to if they or a friend were sexually assaulted. Although a similar figure was reported last year, this finding was a significant improvement from 2015, when only 76 percent of women undergraduate students and 80 percent of men undergraduate students reported that they knew where to go on campus to get help should they or a friend be sexually assaulted. 

"From a SHARE perspective, it's really encouraging to hear that so many people know where to go if they experience interpersonal violence,” said Kelly McCabe ‘18, president of the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, and Education peer program.

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“We’ve done a lot of work over the past few years to try and make sure that the campus knows how to access resources,” said Minter. “There’s a new policy in place, which we’ve publicized a great deal. The SHARE office is doing wonderful work.”

The Sexual Misconduct and Title IX department has also focused on strengthening prevention efforts such as training for faculty, staff, and graduate students.

According to the survey report, the increase in awareness may also be linked to the posters about sexual assault that the University has installed in every campus bathroom. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they have seen these posters.

However, Minter also pointed out that the results of this year’s survey indicate consistent and “unacceptably high” rates of misconduct, including sexual assault and nonconsensual sexual penetration. Of the respondents to the 2017 survey, 10 percent experienced non-consensual sexual contact, or sexual assault, and two percent experienced non-consensual sexual penetration, or rape, according to the report.

“Overall, we find that prevalence of inappropriate sexual behaviors during the 2016-2017 school year are essentially unchanged from those reported during the 2015-2016 school year,” the report stated. 

“We’re concerned about exactly the same things that we have been concerned about: the unacceptably high rate of prevalence, particularly for sexual assault and penetration; the prevalence of sexual harassment, which is particularly experienced by graduate women, and just the disproportionate experiences that some populations are having,” Minter explained.

The report of the 2017 survey identified first-year and sophomore students and LGBTQIA+ students as populations at a higher risk of experiencing sexual misconduct.

"SHARE has been working to address populations that are at a higher risk of interpersonal violence or have less access to or awareness of resources. We've started a new program for LGBTQIA+-affiliated peers, because these students are two times more likely to experience sexual misconduct,” said McCabe.

This year’s survey found that of the 8 percent of graduate women who experienced sexual harassment during the 2016-2017 academic year, 23 percent said that the harassment involved an employee/staff member, faculty member, or postdoc, according to an infographic summarizing the survey results.

In an email to the University community, Minter said that the University recognizes the “growing and important national conversation regarding sexual harassment occurring in situations where there are unbalanced power dynamics, including within academia.”

"This year we have our first-ever grad student peer, so we're working on increasing our outreach there,” McCabe added.

Minter said that the University appreciates the commitment of the student body to responding to the survey for the past three years. The response rate has remained consistent at around half of all undergraduate and graduate students.

“We were delighted the community supported us as well as they did,” Marsh added. “It's a big ask, but the community came through with flying colors and we had the same response rate all three years.”