MIT Becomes Highest Profile University To Disclose Data On Sexual Assaults

CREDIT: AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

MIT's president, L. Rafael Reif

A prestigious research university has published what the New York Times describes as “a rare, detailed look at sexual assault and harassment on a university campus,” publicly sharing the results of its first campus survey about this type of violence. According to the results from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s survey, which were released this week, at least 17 percent of women and 5 percent of men say they’ve been sexually assaulted.

This past spring, in an effort to help shape reforms in this area, MIT collected responses from more than 3,800 undergraduate and graduate students about their experiences with assault and harassment. The survey asked detailed questions about students’ unwanted sexual contact. For instance, among the participants who said they had been assaulted while enrolled at MIT, nearly half said their consent was violated when they were incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. More than 70 percent said their assailant was another student. Among the general population, more than one in five students said they knew someone who had committed an assault.

But fewer than 5 percent of the respondents who indicated they had been subjected to unwanted sexual activity chose to report that incident to campus authorities. Seventy two percent of the students who were assaulted said they didn’t think it was “serious” enough to report.

So far, MIT is the highest profile college to publicize this kind of data. Administration officials have historically swept these details under the rug out of fear of turning off prospective students. But as colleges have recently come under considerable fire for the way they handle rape cases — and as a White House Task Force has set its sights on reform — some schools are making a slow shift toward greater transparency to demonstrate they’re taking steps to address the criticism.

MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, said in a statement that he was “disturbed by the extent and nature of the problem’’ reflected in the data, but that he’s ultimately confident the breadth of information will allow the MIT community to “find a path to significant positive change.” In response to the survey results, the university has already announced several new policies, such as increasing support staff who are available to help students after a sexual assault and implementing more widespread education and prevention programs.

That’s exactly why campus activists and U.S. lawmakers have been pushing for more colleges to conduct these type of surveys. Getting a more detailed look at students’ real experiences with sexual violence, particularly in light of the fact that most college students don’t report these crimes to school officials, can help campuses understand the scope of the problem. It makes it harder to downplay the issue, and easier to push for serious reforms.

“Climate surveys are vital for ensuring that students can speak up, even in anonymous ways, and not rely on administrators to tell the truth about gender and sexual violence on their campuses,” Danielle Dirks, an assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College and one of the founders of End Rape on Campus, argued in a column published at the end of the summer.

“A big-name school like MIT being ahead of the curve like this matters,” Andrea Pino, a college sexual assault activist who has helped file federal complaints against dozens of institutions, told the New York Times this week. Pino praised the MIT’s survey for being so detailed.

It’s an idea that’s starting to take off. Rutgers University was specifically chosen by the White House to pilot a new climate survey to gauge students’ experience with sexual violence, an effort that got underway this month. Depending how that goes, it could be expanded to additional schools. Several other schools, including Ivy League institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, have already indicated that they’re planning to begin conducting these surveys soon.

MIT’s data is similar to the figures from a 2007 survey conducted by the Department of Justice that found an estimated 19 percent of college women had experienced sexual assault. During the White House’s push to address the campus rape epidemic, federal officials have repeatedly cited that number to emphasize how widespread the problem is. Conservative critics, however, frequently accuse the administration of manipulating the data, saying there’s no way that one in five college women has actually been assaulted.