In a conference room more than 700 miles away from University Park, 22 university administrators, researchers and psychologists met in Madison, Wisconsin, to improve and develop a campus climate survey.
A week later, on Feb. 17 in Old Main, Penn State President Eric Barron endorsed the Task Force on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment’s 18 recommendations, one of which included the implementation of a campus climate survey.
Within a week’s time, over 10 universities were represented in two different regions of the country, yet each shared a common goal — gather information to combat sexual misconduct on college campuses.
Last Friday on April 17, a pilot of a climate survey was sent out to a sampling of University Park and Commonwealth students in order to test and gain feedback on how the instrument works.
Though Penn State’s survey looks slightly different from the one developed in Madison, they both seek to collect comparable data on campus sexual misconduct.
Tale of two surveys
In May 2014 when the U.S. Department of Education published a list of universities under review for compliance under Title IX, several universities, including Penn State, began to take action.
Director of Student Affairs Research and Assessment Adam Christensen said following the release of schools under review, researchers at Rutgers University worked with the White House to develop a campus climate survey, though it wasn’t required by the federal government.
Christensen said researchers at Rutgers admitted their survey was a first step, and they expected others to take it and modify it as needed.
Jennifer Freyd, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and researcher present at the Madison Summit, said the Rutgers survey was modified at the Georgia State University Campus Climate Forum the fall of 2014, and improved upon again in Madison.
The two-day meeting held on Feb. 11 and 12 in Madison, called the Madison Summit for Campus Climate and Sexual Misconduct, met with the goal of improving and strengthening current climate surveys to be administered at universities across the country.
“After 25 years as a researcher of sexual violence, this is the first time I’ve seen an opening at a national level to make a difference. For some reason, our society just became ready to address this problem,” Freyd said. “It’s not like its new, but something’s shifted now. It’s our duty to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Freyd said the days spent in Madison were extremely productive, which resulted in the creation an “excellent survey.” She said the summit’s greatest strength was the combination of researchers and administrators present.
It can be tricky to ask about sexual violence and get accurate information, Freyd said. Researchers understand the right language to use and the process of open research, she said, whereas administrators provide the researchers with what information will be useful for the university to collect.
Freyd said having a common core of measurements will allow researchers to compare one school against another and help to understand why some schools are having either a lower or higher rate of sexual misconduct.
“It puts schools under pressure to come forward,” Freyd said. “Schools want to hide [sexual misconduct] because it looks bad, but if we can independently collect and publish the information, the schools are then under pressure to reduce the risks of misconduct.”
University of Connecticut Title IX investigator and Deputy Title IX Coordinator Meredith Smith was among the administrators present at both meetings in Georgia and Wisconsin.
Universities learn so much from their colleagues across the country in different ways beyond campus climate, Smith said. It’s important for universities to have some shared data points because she said, it gives administrators a chance to see what’s working on some campuses and isn’t working on others.
“People are under the assumption every school is the same here in America,” Smith said. “The greatest thing about campuses doing their own surveys is realizing it’s important for universities to know their own communities and climate.”
Smith said she wouldn’t be surprised if similarities in campus climate were found between Penn State and the University of Connecticut, as they are both large public universities. While there are some places the two universities may have common grounds, she said it’s still important to acknowledge every campus is different.
Universities should repeatedly conduct this type of research to bring rates of misconduct down, Freyd said, and the data collected is a great way to figure out how to make schools and students feel safer.
‘This is the world you live in’
Christensen said by spring 2016, he’s hoping to have important comparative data for Barron by working with other similar institutions to see how the university is doing in comparison.
The final draft of the survey, expected to be sent out in late October or early November, will give the university a better idea of incident rates, as Christensen said crimes of sexual violence are often under reported.
“The only way to get at those figures is with surveys like this, where victims can anonymously report their experiences without having to report it formally,” he said. “We want to be as transparent as possible. We are going to be very open with the data, and see what other institutions will be too.”
The survey distributed to Penn State campuses will inquire about student’s knowledge of bystander intervention, campus resources, what sexual violence is and if they can recognize certain behaviors and actions, Christensen said.
Gathering that information can help inform university policies and practices, he said, because if students are not as well informed as they could be, the university will have the information to see where they aren’t hitting the mark with students.
When the final draft of the survey is distributed to students at all Commonwealth campuses, Christensen said questions will be tailored so they are relevant at each campus across the state, including the medical and law schools.
Since the Office of Student Affairs Research and Assessment doesn’t have the capacity to provide reports of this magnitude, Christensen said a third-party source will be utilized to conduct the electronic survey.
When conducted on the full scale, the third-party source will distribute the survey to a random sample at each campus that is representative of the population, he said.
Christensen said any student that randomly receives the survey, either now or in the fall, should complete it regardless of their experiences with sexual assault or misconduct.
“The most important reason for you to participate in the survey is because this is your campus, this is the world you live in,” Christensen said. “You need to give us information about your experiences, so we can make the Penn State experience as a whole even better.”