In early April, an anonymous survey was sent out to the Vassar community entitled “Vassar College Survey Exploring Sexual Misconduct, Dating Violence, and Stalking on Campus 2015,” also nicknamed “What Happens Here.” All Vassar students were invited to participate through email. The survey was organized by a small design team consisting of Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and the College’s Title IX officer Julian Williams; Director of Institutional Research David Davis-Van Atta; House Advisor to Lathrop and Jewett House, Assistant Director of Residential Life, Student Conduct, & Housing and Title IX Investigator Kelly Grab; Vassar Student Association VP for Student Life Hannah Matsunaga ’16; Director of Health Education Renee Pabst and Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) Coordinator Charlotte Strauss Swanson.
In response to popular outcry about sexual assault, dating violence and stalking on college campuses, the Federal Department of Education, the Office of Civil Rights and the White House have recently urged colleges and universities across the United States to formally survey their student bodies about what goes on their campuses with regards to such issues.
Although many institutions, including some of Vassar’s peer institutions, have not yet collected detailed student-based data on these sorts of behaviors and experiences, Vassar began working to develop and administer such a survey in July 2014. Pabst explained, “The survey is part of the ‘Not Alone’ and SaVe Act requirements from the federal government. Though this is not a mandate from the government, Vassar SAVP has talked about conducting a more extensive survey for the last few years, so with the push from the government it seemed like the perfect time to move forward with the survey.”
Vassar, alongside a set of its peer institutions, including Amherst College, Tufts University, Williams College, Middlebury College and Connecticut College, among others, convened at Wesleyan University in Connecticut to discuss options for designing a survey collectively. The group worked through late November to finalize a survey instrument, of which Davis-Van Atta expressed his satisfaction. “I could not have designed this survey myself. The Wesleyan participants, and our local campus team, have all been invaluable to me in enabling me to be able to do my parts of this project. They are universally superb. And sine qua non to this project at every stage.”
After the groups settled on a general structure to the survey, each school was given the chance to confirm the language to their campus-specific parlance and organizations, and some schools crafted additional questions on topics not covered in the main, collective body of the survey.
According to Pabst, the survey is based on different evidence-based surveying instruments designed to measure rates of sexual misconduct, dating and domestic violence, stalking and bystander intervention. Grab, who helped to design the survey discussed the process. “Before launching the survey we did pilot it with several test groups,” she wrote, in an emailed statement; “I think having groups of students provide feedback throughout the creation helped to make this a strong assessment.”
She continued, “Although difficult content matter, the reactions I have received were mostly excitement at the opportunity to give Vassar’s response to sexual and gender-based violence this kind of platform for reflection and critique.”
Davis-Van Atta spoke about the plans for possible future uses of the results of the survey. “Over this summer, Institutional Research (IR) will study the data, in cooperation with other members of the team in order to ultimately respond to questions and suggestions from the campus,” he explained in an emailed statement. “IR will produce some form of a report, and/or set of presentations, and perhaps other methods of informing the campus, distributing the findings, and facilitating discussion.”
Matsunaga spoke about the particular significance the survey has to her and many other students on campus. She commented, “Firstly, we have literally no idea what happens here. We have general numbers and anecdotal evidence but because the vast majority of people who are sexually assaulted don’t report to the college or structures outside the college our information is very limited. Therefore, people in policy making roles don’t have any sense of the magnitude of what we’re dealing with.”
She continued, “Getting accurate data of what happens on campus is a valuable tool in moving forward. Also, we hope that this survey will help students who have experienced traumatic things on campus to realize that they are not alone.”
Davis-Van Atta noted the importance of past surveys, like ones specific to certain class years or one directed at the faculty: “The Senior Survey has been excellent in revealing student satisfactions and dissatisfactions with myriad aspects Vassar. The Freshman Survey is invaluable in knowing who comes to Vassar – it’s very self-descriptive in ways and areas no other survey captures. The Faculty Survey has been quite revealing of faculty lives: satisfaction levels with various aspects of teaching and working at Vassar, sources of stress, attitudes toward many campus issues and conditions, etc.”
He went on to say, “We have some informative alumni survey data as well, including now (thanks to CDO efforts) excellent knowledge about the first year after Vassar. All of these projects provide great variety of data and findings that various offices have used to inform and develop initiatives, evaluate and tweak earlier initiatives and services.”
Matsunaga expressed her excitement at the progress that Vassar has made, emphasizing the importance of such efforts to raising awareness about, and working to end, sexual assault and violence on campus. She commented, “As traumatic as campus is for many people, and I am not trying to minimize their experiences, I really do think we’re ahead of the curve in terms of the response to sexual assault which is scary because we’re definitely not perfect but in comparison with other institutions we are doing well. For example, within our consortium I was the only student who was allowed to work on and change the survey, at all other schools its was strictly the administration.”