Message to the Columbia University Community Regarding the AAU Survey

Monday, September 21, 2015

To the Columbia community,

            Sexual assault prevention and response remains a pressing issue on our own campus and on campuses around the nation, as the American Association of Universities survey, released today, shows.   Unacceptable, high rates of sexual harassment and assault cause harm to Columbia students and to our University community as a whole.  As members of this community, it is on each of us to recognize this and to act, in whatever ways we can, to prevent further incidents and to provide support when incidents occur. 

            University communities, including ours, do not exist apart from the challenges of the broader society, where sexual objectification, harassment and violence also occur with unacceptable, high frequency.   Yet as a community, we have a special obligation – to each other and to the mission of shared learning and research – to go further in addressing gender-based misconduct, including all forms of sexual assault and harassment, so that all can participate fully in Columbia’s robust offerings and opportunities. 

            I encourage you to read the executive summary that highlights key points in the AAU data and, if you’d like, the reports and data tables prepared by Westat, the research firm that administered the survey.  The report and tables containing Columbia’s data are posted on the Sexual Respect website, together with links to the tables and report with aggregate data for the 27 higher-education institutions in the AAU survey.  Please also read Columbia’s second annual Report on Gender-Based Misconduct Prevention and Response, released today too, which provides both description and data regarding prevention programming and the gender-based misconduct disciplinary process at Columbia during the 2014-15 academic year.

University resources, SHIFT research, and more to do

            The University has extensive resources devoted to prevention and response and will continue efforts to make sure that every community member is well aware of them all.  It will likewise continue to support greater engagement and learning through the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative, which invites reflection on the link between sexual respect and University community membership and will be required this year for all students new to Columbia. 

            In addition, as part of Columbia’s research mission, the multidisciplinary Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), funded by President Bollinger’s office, has, since its inception last year, been actively examining the individual, interpersonal, and community-level factors that shape sexual health and sexual violence on our campus.  

            Still, the data from the AAU survey reinforces that there is more work to do for students, faculty and administrators to create an environment free from the harms of gender-based misconduct.   University communities are shaped – and renew themselves regularly – through the actions of their members.  And so it is at Columbia, which means that this University community has the opportunity, now, to pivot toward the ideal – a community that interacts in mutually respectful ways even amidst our differences.

Sources of transformative change: 

The Columbia administration’s responsibilities

            Transformative change like this cannot come from one source alone.  The administration’s responsibility is clear:  Strong prevention programming, accessible and supportive resources for students who experience gender-based misconduct, and policies and a disciplinary process that is both sensitive and fair must be part of the University’s approach to these issues.  The Provost will also require that all faculty, as well as staff, receive training related to sexual harassment, assault, and other forms of gender-based misconduct.

The role of students

            Students likewise have a significant role to play in shaping the environment for each other.  As the AAU data indicates (more on this below), Columbia students who reported that they had been sexually harassed or assaulted often identified other Columbia students as responsible for the harassment or assault.  The data also show that many students have witnessed harassment or nonconsensual sexual contact and that many have also stepped in to help, and others were reluctant for a variety of reasons and did not.

            While faculty and administrators can create supportive opportunities to learn skills and build communities, change will require that students, too, consider how to contribute individually and collectively to an intra-community ethic that treats this conduct among peers as intolerable, whether in classrooms, labs, residence halls, late-night parties or anywhere else.

Get involved

            Many students are already involved in prevention and response work as volunteers with Sexual Violence Response and through student organizations and the prevention working group of students, faculty and administrators from throughout the University that developed the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative last year. 

            This year, we will formalize the prevention working group as a Gender-Based Misconduct Prevention Task Force, which will focus on programming, further data analysis, and other efforts to reduce the incidence of sexual assault, sexual harassment and other gender-based misconduct at Columbia.  Students from all of Columbia’s schools are invited and encouraged to apply for the Task Force here.

Reflections on the Data

            The Executive Summary and the data tables themselves are full of information warranting ongoing discussion.  Here, I flag four data points that seem especially important for each of us to consider as we think about transforming campus climate on these issues.  I also include links below to three research reports – one on the role of alcohol, one on pre-college experience of sexual abuse or assault as a significant risk factor, and one that compares data on sexual assault for women students and non-students.  None is intended as comprehensive but all are useful for additional data and context. 

1.  Alcohol and sexual assault  - A majority of students who reported that they had experienced sexual assault (defined as nonconsensual sexual contact or penetration) also reported that both they and the other student were drinking alcohol immediately before the incident.  The Gender-Based Misconduct Policy speaks to this issue at some length.  I highlight here two of the Policy’s essential points on this issue: 

  • Being intoxicated, impaired, or incapacitated by alcohol or other drugs is never an excuse for committing a policy violation and does not diminish anyone’s responsibility to obtain informed and freely given consent. 
  • The use of alcohol or other drugs never makes someone at fault for experiencing gender-based misconduct

The Policy adds this important point:  Individuals should be aware of, and carefully consider, the potential consequences of the use of alcohol or drugs.  Alcohol and drugs can lower inhibitions and create an atmosphere of confusion over whether consent is freely and affirmatively given. 

Here you can find academic research on the interaction between alcohol and risk of sexual assault. 

2.  Heightened risks for some groups of students –The AAU data shows that women in their freshman and sophomore years of college report experiencing nonconsensual sexual harassment or assault (again, defined as nonconsensual penetration or touching) as well as intimate partner violence and stalking more often than any other group of students both nationally and at Columbia. This is particularly important information for the entire undergraduate community of students, both those who see themselves as more vulnerable and those who do not, as the community develops its ethic of care for one another. 

            The data also show that women experience sexual assault more often than men, and that students who identify as lesbian, bisexual, asexual or questioning students are disproportionately more likely to experience sexual assault than students who identify as heterosexual or straight.  Students who are transgender, genderqueer or gender nonconforming, questioning or did not list a gender on the survey also reported higher rates of sexual assault. With respect to race and ethnicity, rates of nonconsensual penetration were similar among undergraduate women except for students who identified as Asian, who experienced lower rates.  For women in graduate school, sexual assault rates were slightly higher among women who identified as White than among women who identified as Black, Asian or Hispanic. 

            The numbers of men who report experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact of any sort are much lower, but research suggests that these low numbers may reflect that men are especially likely to underreport incidents of nonconsensual sex.

            Academic research also strongly suggests that individuals who have experienced sexual abuse or assault before arriving on campus are at substantially more risk of sexual exploitation or victimization in adulthood. Additional research by the Department of Justice shows that women aged 18-24 have the highest rates of rape and sexual assault as compared to women in all other age groups, that the perpetrator is typically known to both groups of women, and that non-students report higher rates of rape and sexual assault as compared to students.

3.  Awareness of resources and use of the disciplinary process –  Undergraduate and graduate students new to Columbia last year heard more information at orientation than students from previous years about the University’s expanded resources for help, support, and reporting of gender-based misconduct.  As a result, students relied on these resources and on the enhanced Gender-Based Misconduct Office, with its case managers and professional investigators, in growing numbers last year.  Our hope and expectation is that, as more students learn about the available resources from the outset of their experience here, students’ confidence in and comfort with using the University’s resources whenever they are needed will continue to increase, both this year and beyond.

4.  Isolation and outreach -  While many students who experienced sexual assault (meaning nonconsensual sexual contact or penetration) sought support from a friend, family member, faculty member or campus resource, many told no one at all, including more than 1 in 5 who reported experiencing nonconsensual penetration when they were incapacitated by alcohol or drugs.  

Confidential help and support are available through Sexual Violence Response (SVR’s hotline, with both professional and peer counselors, is available 24/7 at 212-854-HELP), Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside), Mental Health Services (CUMC), the Chaplain’s office and the Ombuds office.  The Gender-Based Misconduct Officer’s case managers are also available as a non-confidential but still privacy-protecting resource to help navigate accommodations such as extensions, housing issues, and more.  

Know that these resources are here – for yourself, your friends, your classmates and your students.  And consider taking a workshop during the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative, which will begin in October, on how to support a friend who has experienced sexual violence. 

*     *     *

As I wrote above, communities are formed by the people who inhabit them.  Each of us, as part of this University community, can - and should – take some step, whether small or large, to create a community in which we can all live and learn more freely. 


Suzanne Goldberg
Executive Vice President for University Life
Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law