I am a university president, a physician-scientist, an educator and a father. The issue of sexual misconduct at the University of Michigan, and at all of our nation’s campuses, keeps me awake at night.
I feel personally responsible for the safety of all students at U-M.
This year, U-M committed to a thorough, transparent and honest self-examination to assess the problem of sexual misconduct that affects our students.
We surveyed a representative sample of students on our Ann Arbor campus about their experiences with sexual misconduct. The survey instrument was designed by national experts, and we worked hard to achieve a strong response rate (67 percent). The survey included very specific questions, with explicit descriptions of behaviors that allowed us to distinguish different types of sexual assault and the conditions under which they occur.
Our goal was to gain as deep an understanding as possible about sexual misconduct at our university so we can improve our education and prevention efforts and enhance existing services that help survivors, while creating a safer, more respectful and more caring community overall.
We expected from the outset that many of the survey results would be troubling, but public availability of reliable scientific data is essential if we are to make college campuses safer.
While there has been valuable research on how to help sexual assault survivors, there is a surprising lack of data available about the specific circumstances of sexual misconduct on college campuses. This has hampered our collective success in developing strategies to reduce sexual misconduct across the country.
Sexual misconduct is a problem not just on college campuses, but in our society as a whole.
Though existing research provides some evidence that young people enrolled in college are at less risk of sexual assault than those who are not, the risk on campuses must be addressed.
We are committed to sharing any insights we have gained through our survey with the broader higher education community and are making response data available publicly at this Web site.
Universities not only need the best information possible to address sexual misconduct — they need to talk openly and honestly with their communities about the issues on their campuses. That is a necessary step in making our campuses safer. We must now have the difficult conversations that will allow us to develop and implement the most effective solutions. We are convinced that these conversations will be most productive if they are informed by accurate data.
We learned that in the past 12 months at the University of Michigan, 11.4 percent of our students said they experienced some form of non-consensual (also known as unwanted) sexual behavior that could have included touching, kissing, fondling or penetration. Among undergraduate women, the number was 22.5 percent. (The 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study, conducted at two other large public universities, found as many as 20 percent of undergraduate females experienced some form of sexual assault.)
We also learned that far too many students are not telling anyone about what they experienced, and consequently, are not getting the support they need. Only 46 percent said they told someone such as a friend or roommate; just 3.6 percent talked to an official resource. We can do a much better job in helping members of our community feel safe in sharing what has happened and know how to report sexual misconduct.
We must work much harder to improve a culture where 23 percent of students experience harassment. Unwanted attention and harassment should not be a cultural norm. I hope we can change that.
The data also confirm that certain subgroups within our communities need extra attention.
Women were about eight times more likely than men to report experiencing non-consensual penetration. Groups more likely to say they experienced non-consensual penetration included underrepresented minorities; members of fraternities and sororities; bisexual, gay and lesbian students; and club sports participants.
Alcohol also is a factor in sexual misconduct, which many would expect, but we learned that verbal pressure is as prevalent in the experiences reported by our students. Physical force is rarely used; for example, fewer than 1 percent of students report experiences involving physical force in unwanted penetration.
Knowing this added level of detail will help our campus experts more effectively tailor educational programs at groups and behaviors that we found to be associated with assault.
I would also note that this was a baseline, initial survey. We expect to repeat this survey so we can assess the effectiveness of our interventions and look for improvement over time.
Earlier this spring, U-M also participated in a survey developed and administered by the Association of American Universities that for the first time looked at sexual misconduct across many campuses.
By carefully studying sexual assault on our campus, comparing our data with others and openly sharing what we learn, we hope to inform solutions across the country. While I suspect there is no “one size fits all” approach given the large number of institutions of higher education in the U.S., sharing our data can help us approach campus sexual misconduct as the threat to public health that it truly is – and help prevent our students from ever having to experience its horrors.
Many campuses provide services to help survivors. Here at Michigan, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center has been in place for nearly 30 years, having been created in response to student activism. I want to give the professionals at all campuses data that will help them help their students.
All of the fellow higher education leaders I have spoken with understand that we can and must do better.
I have met with survivors and their family members. The ongoing pain caused by sexual assault is heartbreaking. It limits the ability of survivors to take full advantage of the educational and growth opportunities that universities exist to provide. We must do more to reduce sexual misconduct, address incidents appropriately, encourage survivors to seek help, and provide support for all those affected.
As a parent, I’m always concerned about the safety and well-being of my children. That concern didn’t end when they headed off to college or afterwards as they continued to study or began their careers. We all want our children to live, work or study in an environment that is as safe and supportive as possible. That is my aspiration for our students at U-M and for all of the daughters and sons who study at educational institutions across the country.
Mark S. Schlissel, M.D., Ph.D., is the 14th president of the University of Michigan and the first physician-scientist to lead the institution. He took office in July 2014.