[Trigger warning: discussion of sexual assault.]
Last week, Vassar students received an email inviting them to participate in the “What Happens Here” survey. As the survey website explains, “[This study] examine[s] Vassar student views, knowledge, and experiences around issues related to sexual violence, including the incidence and prevalence of all forms of sexual misconduct…experienced by students at Vassar. The survey also covers student perceptions of the campus climate related to sexual misconduct and the effectiveness of policies and campus prevention efforts related to these behaviors” (Vassar College: What Happens Here Survey, “FAQS,”).
Students can find the link to the survey in an email dated April 13 from Director of Institutional Research David Davis Van-Atta. Those who choose to participate can expect to spend 10 to 30 minutes answering the questions, depending on how much information they have to report.
The survey will remain open until the end of April. All students are strongly encouraged to participate.
Vassar first conducted the “What Happens Here” survey in April 2015. The Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Director and Title IX Coordinator Rachel Pereira commented that the goal of the survey was to collect information. She said in an email, “The College embarked in the 2015 survey voluntarily because we believed that it was important for us to get baseline data by which we could measure our Title IX efforts to date.”
The carefully-designed survey ensured that Vassar collected this baseline data. In a written statement Davis Van-Atta described how the College developed the survey, “[The survey] was developed first by about 15 Northeast highly selective private colleges in a collective process coordinated by Wesleyan University … Each school sent at least one survey expert from Institutional Research and one (often two) experts from Title IX functions, health services, counseling services, etc.” He continued, “Each school could include local questions and topics in addition to the core survey created by the Wesleyan survey design. Vassar took advantage of the local design option for about 20 to 25 percent of its 2015 survey, using a ‘Survey Oversight Group’ consisting of Vassar staff in Health Services, Title IX, SAVP, and Institutional Research, as well as the VSA VP for Student Life.”
According to the Executive Summary Report, Vassar invited all students enrolled at the College for the 2015 spring semester and students on Junior Year Abroad to participate in the 2015 survey. 1,171 students completed it, including 731 cis women, 380 cis men, 49 non-cis students (including individuals who identified as genderqueer or trans) and 11 students who did not indicate their gender identity. The report noted that response rate for women was about 52 percent and for men about 36 percent. A response rate for other gender identities could not be determined because no student records data existed for this information (“Executive Summary of Data and Findings from the Vassar College Campus Climate Survey regarding Sexual Assault and Misconduct, Dating Violence, Stalking, and Vassar’s Title IX Processes, Conducted Spring, 2015”).
The survey found that experiences at Vassar were similar to those at other colleges. Davis Van-Atta elaborated, “One highly thematic finding was that Vassar is not fundamentally different from other colleges and universities in most aspects of what the survey explored. We found ourselves to be remarkably similar to other schools, both those like Vassar, and others quite different.”
Pereira highlighted this particular finding as well. “Vassar was in line with national statistics that indicated that one in five cis women indicated that they have experienced sexual assault on campus,” she wrote. “These experiences were particularly prevalent during freshman year.”
Davis Van-Atta provided further statistics about student experiences. He commented, “The cumulative effect of annual incidence rates were found to result in, in a given year, 14.8 percent of cis-women, 5.3 percent of cis men and 18.8 percent of non-cis populations over all four classes at Vassar to report having experienced at least one non-consensual penetrative sexual assault during the time enrolled at Vassar…Among graduating seniors then, the cumulative effect of Vassar’s annual incidence rates was found to result in 20.5 percent of cis women, 7.5 percent of cis men and 30.4 percent of non-cis populations reporting at least one incident of non-consensual sexual assault between enrolling as a first year student and graduating as a senior.”
Almost all reported incidents occurred on campus, were between two or more Vassar students, and often involved someone that the survivor identified as a “friend” or “acquaintance.” Davis Van-Atta noted that under 10 percent of survivors filed a formal report with Vassar after an incident occurred, and none filed one with law enforcement.
After Vassar processed the 2015 survey results, several changes occurred at the College. Vassar hired a full time sexual assault prevention educator and created a Presidential Title IX task force. House teams, senior leadership, the Board of Trustees, employees and incoming freshmen participated in mandatory training. Safety and Security training increased as well and Vassar paid additional attention to campus lighting.
Vassar also increased its pool of trained outside adjudicators to try to ensure due process for all students and created focus groups for students of marginalized identities such as students of color, LGBTQ students and women-identifying students to talk about their experiences with Title IX. Representatives from the Title IX Office now regularly visit residence halls to ensure that they are safe for all students. SART members and student groups work on advocacy around local and national sexual assault prevention efforts as well.
The 2017 survey will reveal how students have perceived these reforms. In 2015, fewer than 50 percent of survey respondents expressed the belief that “Vassar was working to remedy underlying factors on campus that may lead to sexual assault.” Fewer than 50 percent also reported that they were confident in the Title IX Office’s ability to conduct “thorough and unbiased hearings,” “through and unbiased investigations,” “accurately [determine] what actually occurred” and take “appropriate action(s) against perpetrators found responsible.” Cis females reported lower confidence levels than cis males for each of these Title IX processes (Vassar College, “Executive Summary of Data and Findings from the Vassar College Campus Climate Survey regarding Sexual Assault and Misconduct, Dating Violence, Stalking, and Vassar’s Title IX Processes,” 2015).
Pereira believes that this updated 2017 survey will help Vassar meet the needs of all students. “The  survey includes several questions that will allow us to compare our results from 2015 to now,” she wrote. “We looked at sample surveys from across the country to ensure that what we had best met the needs of what we want to ascertain from our students.
“We were very careful to be sure that the questions would elicit the information from students that would allow us to most effectively address their needs. We also engaged several survey subcommittees to find ways to increase participation amongst historically marginalized students.”
Pereira hopes that as many students as possible will participate in this survey. “We are asking students to engage in this survey because our goal is to keep them safe during their time with us,” she explained. “If students are candid with us then we will be able to use the results to make the appropriate changes that are needed to keep us all safe.”