MIT released the results today of the sexual assault survey sent to all undergraduate and graduate students in April. Seventeen percent of female undergraduate respondents said that they had experienced behaviors defined as sexual assault at MIT, and President L. Rafael Reif said he is “disturbed by the extent and nature of the problem.”
Only five percent of students who indicated that they had experienced behavior defined in most academic literature as sexual assault said they reported their experience to the Institute.
Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88, who spearheaded the survey effort, also announced new Institute policies and programs designed to combat sexual assault.
Barnhart cautioned that the results, reflecting a 35 percent (3,844-person) response rate, are subject to selection bias and cannot be reliably generalized to the rest of the MIT community. Nevertheless, the 17 percent rate is on par with the widely cited statistic that, on average, one in five US undergraduate women have experienced sexual assault, though such statistics are usually measured by random sample.
Five percent of undergraduate male and graduate female respondents said they had experienced behavior defined as sexual assault, as did one percent of graduate male respondents. Thirty-five percent of undergraduate female respondents said they had experienced behaviors defined as sexual harassment, unwanted sexual behaviors, or sexual assault or rape, while this figure was 14 percent for undergraduate male respondents. Overall, undergraduate students consistently indicated that they had experienced unwanted sexual experiences at higher rates than graduate students during their time at MIT.
The survey results indicate that 14 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “rape and sexual assault happen because people put themselves in bad situations,” while 27 percent neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement.
Twenty-eight percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “sexual assault and rape happen because men can get carried away in sexual assaults once they’ve started.” More than half of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved.” Eight percent said that “an incident can only be sexual assault or rape if the person says ‘no.’”
While 97 percent of respondents agreed that they would respect someone who did something to prevent sexual assault, 56 percent who knew a perpetrator said that they did not take any action with that knowledge. More than one in five undergraduate respondents indicated that they knew a perpetrator.
Of the undergraduates who experienced unwanted sexual behavior, over four-fifths of them said that the unwanted sexual behavior occurred on campus. However, the survey made no distinction between dormitory or living group, including fraternities and sororities.
According to data obtained by The Huffington Post through the Freedom of Information Act, no expulsions from sexual assault sanctions occurred from fiscal years 2011-2013, and only four suspensions were handed out during that time.
“What are the sanctions for sexual assault is very hard to answer,” said Barnhart. “The whole range of sanctions are possible. It could be that an investigation results in a decision that no actions should be taken. It could be that an investigation resulting in a panel hearing… results in a student being expelled. The whole range is possible.”
In response to the survey, Barnhart said that the administration has increased training of the Committee on Discipline and created a task force to develop new educational programs, as well as “clarified the policies and procedures” related to sexual assault.
“One thing we learned from the survey… is that if we’re successful — and we must be — in training more people and responding to their needs, then we need to have more staff,” said Barnhart. “We’ve already made a commitment to increase resources so that we can increase education and support.”
Barnhart said students are vital to combating sexual assault, with an emphasis on bystander training and peer-to-peer support. She said that the survey indicated that over 80 percent of students said they “always or usually” took steps to protect friends at parties, outings, or similar situations and referenced training programs by the Panhellenic Association and Interfraternity Council.
She said she hopes “to have the students take the lead in a lot of this.” “Clearly, with this topic students have to be the ones driving the solution.”
Barnhart wrote that a number of the new policies are designed to lower barriers to reporting, which she said helps MIT look for harmful patterns or serial perpetrators. She said that while the Title IX office would investigate complaints it received, it is up to affected students whether to pursue disciplinary action.
The survey also revealed a gap between the number of students who said they had been sexually assaulted and the number who reported experiences defined as sexual assault in the academic literature.
“That indicates to us that there is confusion around what sexual assault is,” said Barnhart. “That’s why it’s imperative, I think, that we open up this dialogue and increase education about what constitutes sexual assault and consent.”
MIT is the first of its peer institutions to send out a sexual assault survey. In May, the Obama administration released a list of 55 colleges under investigation for the way that they have handled sexual assault complaints. Princeton, Harvard, and Dartmouth were among those named.
Barnhart said that the purpose of the survey was not to compare MIT to national figures on sexual assault. “While the comparison [of sexual assault rates with other colleges] can be helpful in terms of understanding others who are doing things better than we are, in some ways the comparison doesn’t matter,” said Barnhart. “What we care about is what’s happening on our campus, and I think what we learned here is that we have a problem, and that’s why we’re releasing these results, and unleashing the collective problem solving and creativity that our community is so well known for.”
According to the MIT News Office, the survey was launched at Reif’s behest in response to an anonymous letter published in The Tech in January, which detailed an MIT student’s rape by her mentor and subsequent PTSD. Reif responded to the letter with an email to the entire community, writing that the account made him “profoundly sad and angry” and announcing that he had charged the then-newly appointed Chancellor “to make the subject of sexual assault a central priority.”
While MIT surveys typically offer only raffled prizes, this survey offered a guaranteed $10 to anyone who completed the survey. According to Jag S. Patel, the Associate Director of Institutional Research, over 40 percent of respondents chose to donate their $10 to groups that aim to combat sexual assault.
Barnhart says that the administration plans to conduct the survey in the future on an “ongoing basis,” although the exact timing has not yet been decided.