Colleges Push Back On Surveys That Could Shed New Light On Sexual Assault

Vice President Joe Biden speaks about the release of the First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from
Vice President Joe Biden speaks about the release of the First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, Tuesday, April 29, 2014, in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. The White House is urging schools to provide victims of sexual assault with a confidential, respectful way to report the crimes and seek treatment. (AP Photo)

A key proposal pushed by the White House and members of Congress to address college sexual assault has plenty of support among survivors, their advocates and experts in the field. What it doesn't have is an endorsement from a major higher education group.

Legislation set to be unveiled this month by a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers is widely expected to include a portion pushing schools to conduct regular climate surveys among students, measuring the instances of sexual violence and harassment on campus, including how students feel about the way their colleges are addressing it.

The surveys gained new notoriety in April when the White House task force on campus sexual assault endorsed the idea of conducting these on every campus, providing a toolkit for conducting a survey and planning to test it with Rutgers University.

Dr. David Lisak, a renowned campus sexual violence researcher, spent much of his time at a recent Dartmouth Summit on Sexual Assault calling on universities to begin deploying surveys right away. Officials from the White House and U.S. Department of Education as well as other speakers at the Dartmouth summit endorsed the surveys, too.

"Surveys aren't going to be the answer to all the problems but this is the core data that anybody would need," Lisak told The Huffington Post. He noted it would be odd for a campus full of researchers to reject researching sexual violence in their own community. He wants schools to do the surveys and release the results publicly.

"Then the question is: Why would you keep that secret? What are you hiding? And what right do you have to hide it? I just think it's an odd thing for universities to be in the position of arguing for less transparency," Lisak said.

But there is plenty of pushback, even without an actual proposal on the table yet.

The surveys faced quick opposition from the American Council on Education and NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, which said they don't favor new requirements that may need additional staffing.

Makese Motley, assistant director of federal relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said his group isn't against climate surveys but doesn't fully endorse them either.

"We think they play a role," Motley told HuffPost. "I think the challenge is going to be in the mechanics of that."

Motley said the group would be fine with the idea of doing them, but it wants to know "how often do we do them and what do they look like."

"[We] think before Congress gets into codifying when and how a climate survey should be done, there are a lot of lessons to be learned," said Jeff Lieberson, vice president of public affairs for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Lieberson said the surveys "seem like something that could be useful," but he also wanted to see the details before the association could make a full endorsement or rejection.

Sexual assault is a notoriously underreported crime; fewer than 1 in 20 victims ever report it to authorities. The idea behind the surveys is to help examine whether a low rate of reported assaults at a campus is due to a college preventing sexual violence from taking place or to students not feeling safe enough to report the incidents.

Currently the only institutions of higher learning required to conduct such surveys are the military academies.

Jon Cardin, who ran this year for Maryland attorney general, tried to require the state's colleges to perform climate surveys, only to face complete opposition from the schools.

Maryland colleges largely pushed back on his proposed legislation, saying that doing the surveys would be "arduous," "difficult" and somewhat costly; that it would be "not necessarily as effective as we want it to be"; and that the colleges could handle this better internally, Cardin said. Officials with the University System of Maryland said their objection was that it would be "inappropriate" for the state to survey students based on a University of New Hampshire model.

"I said: Give me a better idea and we'll work with it, but to stick with inertia and not make any changes is outrageous," Cardin told HuffPost. He suggested the colleges "don't want it to be any verification that the campus is not as safe as they're telling people. They don't want that nightmare, and I understand that. But my job is to make it a safe place."

Sexual assault survivor activists have shifted from being hopeful to fairly confident that this proposal will make it into the final legislative packages that get introduced, given that a bipartisan group of representatives in the House endorsed it in January.

Officials representing colleges are worried about the cost of the survey, adequate staffing and potential bias in the responses, though some schools have said they'll do them.

The aforementioned University of New Hampshire has conducted the surveys, and so did the University of California. Stanford University and the University of Minnesota plan to launch them in the near future.

Daren Mooko, associate dean of students at Pomona College and a presenter at the Dartmouth summit, said in an interview that the Claremont Colleges consortium is "eager" to conduct surveys on their campuses. The only thing slowing them down is a concern for finding the right language to use in the surveys, so they can reuse them to track changes over time to the same questions.

The survey, Mooko said, will also let administrators see if rates are going down. "Otherwise we're just doing what we think is working and just keep doing it without knowing whether it's having an impact," he said.

CORRECTION: This article previously referred to Jon Cardin as currently running for attorney general in Maryland. He lost in the Democratic primary.