One in four undergraduate women at Columbia reported being sexually assaulted during college, according to a report released Monday that detailed the results of a major survey conducted both at Columbia and nationally.
The survey, which was administered by the American Association of Universities, is the largest survey conducted on campus sexual assault to date, with over 150,000 students responding to the the survey nationally.
Along with many of the other 27 participating universities, Columbia released the survey results specific to its own students. A total of 2,060 students—just over 26 percent—of undergraduates responded to the survey, adding a layer of data-driven verification to a public conversation that has relied heavily on anecdotal evidence and personal stories told at protests and in the press.
"The survey data tells us a lot about how students treat each other,” Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg said in an interview with Spectator. “University administrators and faculty can and will continue to talk about prevention and do serious programming, and students will need to think seriously about their ethic of care for each other.”
As Spectator reported this week, the AAU survey data confirms some oft-reported but widely disputed statistics about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. But the report also includes a multitude of data concerning related topics, including how many students choose not to report sexual assault, an overwhelming distrust by students of the administration's efforts to adjudicate reports of sexual assault, and a troubling lack of bystander intervention.
While the AAU report does include data specific to men and transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming, or questioning students as well as data specific to graduate students, Spectator, where possible, restricted its analysis to data pertaining to female undergraduates for the purposes of this article since other sample sizes were relatively small.
This data provides substantial new insights into the state of sexual assault for female undergraduates on Columbia's campus.
Prevalence of experiencing sexual assault reports among seniors
The AAU survey found that 24.4 percent of the 340 undergraduate female seniors at Columbia who completed the survey reported experiencing sexual assault since beginning college, compared to 26.1 percent across the 27 universities that participated in the national survey.
This statistic surpasses the commonly cited—and widely disputed—“one in five” figure on the number of undergraduate women who experience sexual assault during their time in college.
Specifically, the survey found that 10.5 percent of senior women reported experiencing nonconsensual penetration by force or incapacitation since enrolling at Columbia, while 19.5 percent reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual touching.
Incapacitation is defined as the inability to consent or stop what is happening because the individual is passed out, asleep, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Sexual touching is defined as any of the following: unwanted kissing, touching of someone's breast, chest, crotch, groin, or buttocks, or grabbing, groping, or rubbing in a sexual way—even if the touching is over the other individual's clothes.
Of the 254 male seniors who completed the survey, 2.7 percent said they had experienced nonconsenual penetration and 2.4 percent said they had experienced nonconsensual sexual touching by physical force or incapacitation.
Since just 10 transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming, questioning, or not listed (as the report classifies) students responded to this question, the results of those identifying as such for nonconsensual penetration and sexual touching by physical force or incapacitation were omitted in the report.
Why people don't report incidents to Columbia
Notably, the AAU data for Columbia offers insights into why so many students choose not to report incidents of sexual assault to the Office of Gender-Based Misconduct.
According to the report, more than half of the women who experienced nonconsensual sexual intercourse or intentional touching—both graduate and undergraduate—did not report the incident to the University.
A different set of data released by Columbia on Monday—an annual report on the University's Office of Gender-Based Misconduct—said that the office received 100 undergraduate reports of sexual assault last year, up from 42 reports in the 2013-14 school year.
“We know that the number of OGBM cases doesn't reflect the prevalence of sexual violence on campus,” No Red Tape member Amber Officer-Narvasa, CC '18, said in an email. “They're only a small percentage of the incidents that actually occur.”
Some students, like Bronwen Chan, CC '18, expressed cautious optimism about the increase in reports.
“People are more encouraged to come out now, though like not everyone is,” he said. “There's definitely a step towards that and I think that's good.”
Across undergraduates and graduates, a majority of women who did not report said they refrained from doing so because they did not believe their experience was “serious enough.”
The survey showed that 58 percent of women who were victims of penetration by force and 53 percent of those who were victims of assault during incapacitation did not feel their experience was serious enough to report.
Administrators and students offered a range of potential reasons for this lack of reporting.
No Red Tape member Michela Weihl, BC '17, credited this discrepancy to the stories about campus sexual assault that appear most often within the media, and to the dismissal that most students face when sharing their experiences of sexual assault.
“The narrative of rape we often hear, even after the past few years of activism, is not actually representative of what many people experience,” she said in an email. “When all people hear are the most horrific, graphic accounts, it is hard to fit their own experience into the same category.”
Others, though, said that students may want to share those experiences, but not go through a formal adjudication process.
“They [students who have experienced assault] feel an undue burden of shame or whichever way they're processing the trauma,” Coalition Against Sexual Violence member Abby Porter, CC '17, said. “It's something that comes with any type of trauma, especially something so deeply personal.”
Goldberg echoed this statement, citing the diversity of student needs and experiences.
"Many people...choose not to engage the disciplinary process at Columbia and at other schools, not because they don't have confidence in it, but because they think that other steps, such as professional counseling, peer support, or talking with a chaplain or friend or family member, are better ways for them to respond to the experience they've had,” she said.
But for others still, this is linked to a distrust in Columbia's administrative handling of sexual assault.
Gianni Latange, BC '16, said that she doesn't believe the University has been considering cases as seriously as they should be, and that she has friends who have struggled with sexual assault cases at Columbia.
“It's also discouraged a lot of other students from speaking up against their own experiences because they feel like the university isn't going to do anything,” Latange said.
Distrust of the University
While the nationwide survey responses show that students across the country are distrusting of their universities' ability to respond effectively to sexual assault, this phenomenon is especially true at Columbia.
In one of the most stark departures from national trends, about 82 percent of undergraduate women do not think that it is very or extremely likely that campus officials will conduct a fair investigation of a sexual assault report, compared to 54 percent nationally.
About 70 percent of undergraduate women, meanwhile, do not think that it is very or extremely likely that the report would even be taken seriously University officials, compared to about 43 percent nationally.
Members of the University Senate's Student Affairs Committee—which leads student representation in the USenate—said in a statement that these numbers raised red flags.
“While some data point toward improvements and progress compared to peer institutions, we were particularly concerned that a lower percentage of students are confident in the University's ability to adjudicate gender-based misconduct cases than other schools,” the statement said.
Nationally, 63 percent of undergraduate women do not think that it is very or extremely likely that campus officials would take action against offenders. At Columbia, this number is a staggering 89 percent.
Seventy-three percent of Columbia women do not think that it is very or extremely likely that campus officials would protect the safety of the person making the report, compared to 49 percent nationally.
Students' perspectives on what makes Columbia stand out nationally in this regard were mixed.
For members of No Red Tape, the answer to this distinction—one they called “unsurprising”—was a lack of effective response from the University.
“The administration has shown time and time again that when it comes to this issue, they do not have students' best interests at heart,” Officer-Narvasa said. “Columbia needs to do a better job creating an adjudication process that students believe in and that actually delivers justice.”
But Elif Karacayir, GS '17, took a different view, saying she had trust in the institution from her days as an international student. “Whenever I have problems, I always find someone to talk to from the administration,” she said.
The same was true for Chad Tarpley, SEAS '17, who said, "I respect everything they [the OGBM] do, because they're trying to help.”
For her part, Goldberg was optimistic about how the number of reports could change in the future.
"Our hope and expectation is that, as more students have experience working with the Gender-Based Misconduct Office and the other enhanced resources around campus, the level of confidence in the University's response to gender-based misconduct incidents will grow,” Goldberg said.
She added that the AAU survey data doesn't necessarily reflect all the recent changes that have been made, both with regard to policy and prevention, given the age of the respondents.
"There was a significantly enhanced Gender-Based Misconduct Office first put in place in the fall of 2014 with professional investigators and enhanced training for the staff,” she said. “The number of students who had actual experience with the office is quite small, and most of those students don't tend to share broadly about their experiences with the office."
The past two semesters have seen an overhaul of the University's policies and programs related to sexual assault, including major revisions to the gender-based misconduct policy and the creation of two new offices for Sexual Violence Response.
In addition, Goldberg was tasked in January with leading the newly created Office for University Life, created in part to further engage students on issues of sexual respect. Over the summer, the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards was established to take over the investigation and hearing processes for sexual assault.
Although the AAU data reveals that students distrust administrators in addressing sexual assault, it also shows that a majority of students themselves consistently fails to act.
About half of undergraduate respondents said they have witnessed an intoxicated person heading for a sexual encounter, with a significant portion also having witnessed someone acting in a sexually violent or harassing manner.
When witnessing someone acting in a sexually violent or harassing manner, 56 percent of female undergraduates and 60 percent of male undergraduates reported taking no action to intervene. Columbia undergraduate bystander response was on par with national averages.
Student activists said they found this statistic alarming and a sign that more work is left to be done on these issues.
Weihl said she felt this was a sign that Columbia is struggling with its prevention education programs and creating a sense of community accountability.
“Ideally, prevention ed would not only teach students how to identify healthy sexual situations, but also help foster a sense of investment in their community,” Weihl said. “The more invested in the community students feel, the more likely they will feel empowered to intervene and will be supported by their peers in doing so.”
Prevention education at Columbia has seen significant revisions over the past few years.
Previously, required prevention education was limited to NSOP, and current juniors and seniors went through a widely criticized prevention program for new student orientation called “Consent is Sexy.” Relative to programs introduced more recently, many students felt “Consent is Sexy” did not provide sufficient knowledge or strategies related to bystander intervention.
But Sexual Violence Response staged an overhaul of prevention education programming over the past two years, first rolling out Step UP! bystander intervention last August and transforming the program into Step UP and Get SAVI! at this year's NSOP, which featured bystander intervention across multiple required programs.
Goldberg, meanwhile, said that this data presents an opportunity to engage in more conversation about these issues.
“Many students have said they witnessed a drunk person heading off to a sexual encounter, for example, and that is something students might want to talk about more with each other, especially in light of this data,” Goldberg said.
Under her leadership, all Columbia students were required to undergo a mandatory sexual respect initiative last spring, choosing one of five participation options in order to avoid diploma or registration holds. Students, however, will not be required to repeat the program this year.
“Ultimately it's a culture change. A group of people has to change their mindset,” Porter said. “Part of the culture change is students talking to one another and being more aware of these issues. Administration needs to show that they are taking this more seriously.”
Adam Fasman, Juliana Kaplan, Dan Garisto, and Jenna Beers contributed data analysis. Hana Kateman, Nikki Datta, Ainsley Bandrowski, Jackson Guzé, and Kayla Levy contributed reporting.
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