Response to Stanford’s release of the climate survey results

Oct. 9, 2015, 11:00 a.m.

Reading the results of Stanford’s climate survey on sexual assault last week, you may have been confused. I definitely was. 1.9 percent of Stanford students experience sexual assault? Unfortunately, that seemed shockingly low. Peer institutions have taken similar surveys in the past year and reported ten times that occurrence. Is Stanford really that different?

Absolutely not. The results of Stanford’s climate survey are easily misunderstood without a thorough grasp of what our definitions mean.

This past year, I spent hundreds of hours co-chairing the Provost’s Task Force on Sexual Assault during my term as student body president. The result was a report of recommendations to be implemented campus-wide over the coming three years. We made the decision, of which I remain supportive, to narrow Stanford’s definition of sexual assault to very specific, egregious activity that is consistent with California’s penal code. As the report states, and university policy implemented on 3/31/15, “Under university policy (Administrative Guide 1.7.3), sexual assault is defined as engaging in certain sexual acts (such as intercourse) without indication of consent accomplished by means of force, violence, duress, or menace (defined consistently with California rape law) or where a person causes or takes advantage of another in an incapacitated state.”

Here, there is no grey area. Everyone on the task force, and every community member that I spoke to, agreed that expulsion should be our community’s response to such intentional acts of violence.

Specific language at the extreme end of the spectrum means that we can have more confidence that those who should no longer be a part of our community are indeed expelled. But there was a clear trade off – Stanford’s category of sexual misconduct expanded drastically to include everything from unwanted touching to nonconsensual sexual acts up to the legal definition of violence and incapacitation. This includes severe behavior that many agree is also a gross violation of our fundamental standard.

In light of this concern, the task force recommended that all sanctioning begin at expulsion and go down from there. “Reviewing panels,” the report states, “after they have determined that a student is responsible for a violating policy, should begin their consideration of sanctions with the most serious sanction, expulsion, and only then should the panel consider the less serious sanctions.”

At the time more than six months ago, and from a policy perspective, achieving a specific and legally robust definition for sexual assault was an important step towards achieving a safe campus. But I never anticipated that this language would be used to confuse what is a reality of sexual violence at Stanford.

Consuming statistics and campus climate surveys documenting sexual violence is incredibly difficult because there is no required standardization of definitions. This follows a trend in the national dialogue that largely ignores important nuances involved with the issues of sexual violence. Stanford’s climate survey states “the results presented below cannot validly be compared to those from other institutions or in academic publications” (20). And, in theory, I agree.

But the language used by Stanford is now so different from others that I feel it is critical to bring some clarity to the inevitable comparisons that will be made. So, what do the statistics from Stanford’s climate survey on sexual assault actually mean?  

First, those responsible for the acts of sexual assault experienced by that 1.9 percent of our overall student body should be in jail right now. As our report stated, “If an individual were convicted of this conduct in a criminal proceeding, the person so convicted would likely face prison time.” As we know, only one person has ever been expelled from Stanford due to sexual violence, so there is a clear disconnect here that I hope the new, clearer definition of sexual assault will address.

Second, the number of Stanford students who have experienced sexual violence, when more broadly defined, is striking.

To take a step back, Yale defines sexual assault as “any kind of nonconsensual sexual contact, including rape, groping, and any other nonconsensual sexual touching” and recently reported 16 percent of students overall experiencing attempted or completed actions in that category. If we were we to apply that lens to Stanford’s climate survey results, and in effect combine Stanford’s definitions of sexual assault and misconduct, 16.1 percent of students surveyed have had such experiences.  

Third, stating overall statistics that combine the experiences of all gender identities does not make sense. It has been well-documented that women experience sexual assault at a higher rate than men, and that men are even less likely than women to report. Stanford’s climate survey notes on multiple instances that undergraduate women, specifically first- and second-year students, are at the most risk of sexual violence. As long as these truths persist, it is critical to share gender- and age-specific data. Taking this lens to Stanford’s data, 37.7 percent of female undergraduates have experienced sexual assault or sexual misconduct. One recent article based on student response to the climate survey data release took this a step further, noting that 43.3 percent of undergraduate senior females at Stanford have experienced either sexual assault or sexual misconduct.

Language is critical, and can easily be confusing. I am deeply saddened by the language that Stanford has chosen to use in the release of our climate survey data. In my opinion, it is masking the legitimate extent of this atrocious problem at our university. I fear that those who do not want to see this problem will point to a statistic of 1.9 percent and feel they have license to draw a conclusion that rape does not happen at Stanford. That would be a severe mistake.

As a research institution, Stanford values data. I remain supportive of the climate survey in helping us collect Stanford-specific data on the issue of sexual violence, and am grateful to the 9,067 students who took the time to fill it out.

But as we have been reminded, we are a learning community. We must apply our critical analytical skills to all materials we consume, and this climate survey is no exception. Please, take the time to read Stanford’s definitions. Take the time to understand what the task force report is asking Stanford to deliver, and make it your job to see our words turned into action. That will get us closer to realizing the President and Provost’s call to action to address this issue as a community and achieve our shared goal of a campus free of sexual assault.

Contact Elizabeth Woodson at elizabethnwoodson ‘at’ gmail.com.

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