Brown releases survey data on campus-based sexual assault, misconduct

Students report increased trust in the University and knowledge of resources related to sexual and gender-based misconduct, but the prevalence of incidents reported makes clear that sexual assault remains a significant issue at Brown and on campuses nationwide.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Four years after participating in a landmark national survey on sexual assault on college and university campuses, Brown University shared findings with its campus community on Tuesday, Oct. 15, from a follow-up survey conducted in early 2019. Organized by the Association of American Universities (AAU), the 2019 AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct enabled Brown and 32 other institutions to assess progress in preventing and responding to incidents of sexual misconduct.

Brown’s 2019 results showed marked improvement in students’ perception of sexual assault as a problem on campus, knowledge of resources and where to find help, and confidence in the University’s approach to supporting students and resolving complaints. Students expressed greater trust that Brown takes reports seriously and conducts fair investigations, and the data indicated a significant willingness among students to intervene directly when they are a bystander in a situation they believe could lead to sexual assault.

The results also made clear that nonconsensual sexual contact remains a significant issue for campuses nationwide, including Brown. Given its focus on encouraging a culture in which students report incidents and seek assistance, the University was prepared for the likelihood that the percentage of respondents who have witnessed or experienced sexual misconduct would exceed what was reported in 2015 — this indeed proved to be the case, as more students reported incidents of harm and use of campus resources.

In a message to the campus community that preceded the release of Brown’s results, President Christina H. Paxson noted the work of student, faculty and administrative leaders across campus in the four years between surveys to take steps to improve Brown’s approach to prevention and response, from the creation of the University’s Title IX and Gender Equity Office to expanded peer education programs.

“The results of this year’s survey reflect those efforts, with students indicating greater knowledge of resources and increased trust in the University’s efforts to prevent and respond to incidents,” Paxson said. “But the data also show that the prevalence of nonconsensual sexual contact and gender-based harassment remain unacceptably high, both at Brown and at our peer institutions across the nation. Every member of the Brown community must take responsibility for preventing sexual assault and contributing to an environment in which sexual violence or any form of gender-based harassment is not tolerated.

Rene Davis, Title IX program officer at Brown, said the opportunity to follow up with students enabled the University community to evaluate its efforts in the context of a national call to action around reducing sexual misconduct.

“Collectively, students, faculty and staff at Brown have been fearless in taking on the challenge of sexual assault, misconduct and harassment on campus,” Davis said. “We know that incidents are under-reported nationally, and we see Brown’s results as an indication of growing trust among students. To me, the findings say that Brown is a community willing to call out these challenges, understand their place on our campus and continue the difficult work of creating sustainable, meaningful change.”

Like the 2015 survey, the 2019 Campus Climate Survey was organized AAU, of which Brown is a member, and administered by the research firm Westat. A total of 181,752 students at 33 major universities across the U.S. completed the survey. At Brown, nearly 3,100 undergraduate, graduate and medical students participated — a 31.5% response rate. Of the Brown participants, 72% were undergraduates, and approximately 62% of all respondents were women. Participation by all students was both voluntary and anonymous.

After the close of the 2019 survey, conducted at Brown over the period of April 4 to May 5, Westat created reports and data tables for each of the 33 participating institutions, and an aggregate report that combined data for all of the universities. Brown timed the release of its campus data with the AAU’s Oct. 15 release of the  aggregate report to allow the University community to understand Brown’s results in the broader national context, University officials said.

Findings Show Increased Knowledge, Trust

Brown’s participation as one of 27 institutions in the 2015 survey complemented the work of its Sexual Assault Task Force, which was convened by Paxson in 2014 with a charge to create a set of recommendations that would make the University a leader in addressing sexual misconduct on college campuses. Brown has taken a strategic and sustained approach to confronting sexual harassment and gender-based violence on campus based on the task force recommendations and data from the initial survey, Davis said.

In 2015, the University created its Title IX and Gender Equity Office, which strengthened Brown’s protocols for addressing sexual misconduct cases and played a lead role in coordinating education, resources and support around issues of sexual assault and gender-based violence. Later that year, Brown implemented a unified policy on sexual and gender-based violence and harassment and a new approach to investigating and resolving complaints in a prompt, fair and impartial manner. Brown launched required training programs for first-year students, faculty and staff, which focus not only on how to report issues and seek help, but also on how to can identify problematic behavior in themselves and others.

Many of the findings from the 2019 survey reflect the positive impact of those efforts on students’ perceptions of campus climate and knowledge of available resources. Among the key findings:

  • 22.1% of Brown students believe that sexual misconduct is very or extremely problematic on campus, compared to 34.6% in 2015. Conversely, 39.7% indicate that it is a small problem or not a problem at all, compared to 27% in 2015.
  • 66.4% of students at Brown believe that it is very or extremely likely that campus officials would take a report seriously, compared to 50.5% in 2015.
  • 46.4% of Brown students believe that it is very or extremely likely that campus officials would conduct a fair investigation in the event of a report, compared to 25.6% in 2015.
  • 6.9% of students believe it is very or extremely likely that they will experience sexual assault or misconduct while enrolled at Brown, compared to 6.5% in 2015. And 80.7% of students believe that it is unlikely or very unlikely, compared to 76.2% in 2015.
  • 38.6% of Brown students are very or extremely knowledgeable about where to find help with issues related to sexual misconduct, compared to 29.8% in 2015.
  • 30.4% of Brown students are very or extremely knowledgeable about where to make a report, compared to 20.1% in 2015. And 16.7% of students reported that they are very or extremely knowledgeable about what happens after an incident has been reported.

“We see growth in student trust that the University will take meaningful action in the wake of reports and engage in a fair process to resolve complaints,” Davis said. “We see more students understanding resources and reporting options and then reporting incidents to the University. It is clear that Brown’s continued focus on training and on naming these behaviors is having an impact. Overall, students report feeling safer at Brown.”

Prevalence of Sexual Assault and Harassment

The survey asked students to share information about nonconsensual sexual contact since arriving at Brown, including incidents that occurred as a result of physical force or the inability to consent or stop what was happening. Students were also asked to provide details about incidents, including the channels they used to report the incidents and the amount of support they felt they received.

Overall, 13.6% of Brown students reported nonconsensual sexual contact since enrolling because of physical force or inability to consent or stop what was happening. This finding is consistent with the national data compiled by AAU — across all 33 schools, the overall rate of nonconsensual sexual contact was 13%, with rates for women and transgender, genderqueer and nonbinary students being significantly higher than for men.

For the 21 colleges and universities that participated in both the 2015 and 2019 surveys, the rate of nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent increased from 2015 to 2019 by 3.0 percentage points (to 26.4%) for undergraduate women, 2.4 percentage points for graduate and professional women (to 10.8%), and 1.4 percentage points for undergraduate men (to 6.9%).

At Brown, 24.5% of undergraduate women reported experiencing such nonconsensual sexual contact, a small decrease from 25% in 2015. Eight percent of undergraduate men reported such experiences, compared to 6.8% in 2015. Among graduate and medical students at Brown, 9.5% of women and 3.1% of men reported such nonconsensual sexual contact, compared to 8% and 2.7% in 2015, respectively.

Data for respondents who selected trans man, trans woman, questioning, nonbinary or genderqueer, or not listed as the best description for their gender identity was reported across all academic levels, given the smaller number of respondents. In 2019, 30.2% of these respondents at Brown reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact, compared to 25.7% in 2015.

Davis said the slight increases in reporting may be a positive indicator of the effectiveness of University programs. Brown actively encourages members of its community to report incidents of such nonconsensual sexual contact, both to ensure access to the best resources and because reports provide the community with an accurate indication of what students are experiencing.

“The percentage of Brown students reporting incidents through the survey reinforces what we know to be true by listening to our students who access support from the University,” Davis said. “The prevalence of nonconsensual sexual contact remains a major issue both on our campus and others across the country. But I’m heartened to know that when a student experiences an incident, they increasingly are seeking support.”

Among all students who reported acts of nonconsensual penetration, 41.7% contacted a program or resource about the experience; 18.9% of students who reported sexual touching contacted a program or resource. Students reported that 78.4% of offenders were current Brown students in 2019, compared to 87.6% in 2015.

The number of Brown students who reported efforts to directly intervene in situations that they felt were likely to lead to sexual assault, sexual harassment and/or stalking behavior was another encouraging finding, Davis said. For example, of the 17.1% of all respondents who witnessed a situation that they believed could have led to a sexual assault, 36.3% intervened directly, 54.6% checked in with the harmed student and 20.5% confronted the person engaging in the behavior.

Asked about incidents of sexual harassment, 48.2% of students reported experiencing at least one type of offensive or inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature, compared to 55.8% in 2015. Of those students, 22.3% felt that the behavior rose to the level of harassment. Inappropriate or offensive comments about body, appearance or sexual activities was the most common form of harassing behavior reported. A total of 17.6% of students contacted a program or resource about the experience, compared to 10.7% in 2015.

In the category of intimate partner violence, 9.5% of students reported experiencing at least one type of controlling, threatening or physical harm from a partner, compared to 7.8% in 2015. Controlling or attempted controlling behavior was the most common form behavior reported. A total of 36.7% of students contacted a program or resource about the experience, compared to 26.4% in 2015.

And 6.3% of students reported experiencing behavior associated with stalking, compared to 4.2% in 2015. Showing up uninvited or waiting for someone when they do not want the person there was the most common behavior reported. A total of 36.7% of students contacted a program or resource about the experience, compared to 26.4% in 2015.

Additional Findings, Resources and Next Steps

The survey produced an extensive data set, with a core set of 54 questions asked of every respondent and additional follow-up questions for different forms of victimization. The University has posted the following documents and links to resources, including the full Westat report for Brown, on its Title IX website:

Davis noted that the results from the 2015 survey helped Brown to direct intervention and prevention efforts, increase staffing and modify training programs for students, faculty and staff. She expects that the 2019 results will inform additional refinements to the University’s efforts.

Conversations with the campus community will begin with a set of presentations on the findings beginning on Wednesday, Oct. 16, and ending on Wednesday, Oct. 23.

“Following this month’s community presentations, we will convene a working group of practitioners to further analyze the survey data and identify programmatic opportunities surfaced in the report,” Davis said. “Similarly, we plan to meet with student governance groups, campus peer educators and other student leaders to gather additional perspective on the results and our collective next steps.”