Does AAU's survey support the controversial '1 in 5' statistic on sexual assault? Not exactly, experts say.

Pay attention to the definitions

Kristin Tyndall, EAB Daily BriefingKristin Tyndall, associate editor

The Association of American Universities (AAU) released on Monday the findings of its much-anticipated campus climate survey.

The project has already cycled in and out of headlines over the last few months—first, when half of AAU's members opted out of the survey, and second, when some sexual assault survivors reported the survey triggered flashbacks.

The survey asked more than 150,000 students at 27 institutions (26 of which are AAU members) questions to understand the frequency, prevalence, and characteristics of sexual assault and misconduct on campus, as well as the campus climate generally.

One conclusion getting a lot of attention is that nearly one in four female undergrads experience sexual assault or misconduct.

The finding seems to support a controversial statistic that one in five women face sexual assault while in college—and much of the discussion about the AAU survey has focused on this.

Related study: Building an effective university infrastructure for addressing sexual violence on campus

For example, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) said in a statement, "This is the latest study to confirm that at least one in five undergraduate women experiences some form of sexual assault on their campus."

But as Katherine Mangan reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education, previous studies tended to focus on a more narrow definition of rape, while the AAU included broader behaviors like unwanted kissing.

In their key findings, AAU researchers specify that while 23% of female students experience sexual assault or misconduct, only 11% of reports involved penetration. The AAU report also includes tables that break down types of unwanted behavior even more specifically.

In this way, the AAU survey is more detailed than most other campus climate surveys, Westat VP David Cantor told Inside Higher Ed. Westat contracted with AAU to produce the survey.

Nevertheless, the "one-in-four" statistic took most of the headlines. To a casual reader, "they'll think that means rape," Mary Koss, professor of public health at the University of Arizona, told the Chronicle.

Other key findings from the survey include:

  • Less than one-third of incidents are reported to authorities;
  • Nearly 50% of respondents say they have been sexually harassed;
  • About 25% of students believe they are knowledgeable about available resources related to sexual misconduct; and
  • About 50% of students believe the university will conduct a fair investigation if they report an incident.

Also see: Many school websites are failing sexual assault survivors seeking help

Ultimately, Koss told the Huffington Post, the most important result of the survey will be the data that administrators receive about their own schools—and the changes leaders make in response. Most of the participating institutions told the Huffington Post they also plan to release their institution-level data publicly (Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/21; New, Inside Higher Ed, 9/21; Kingkade, "Breaking the Silence," Huffington Post, 9/21; Kingkade, "Breaking the Silence," Huffington Post, 9/20).

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