President Barack Obama talks with U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, who as commander of the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had operational control of the mission to hunt Osama bin Laden, Friday, May 6, 2011, at Campbell Army Airfield in Fort Campbell, Ky. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

William H. McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas system, has one of the most distinctive resumes in higher education leadership: Retired four-star Navy admiral, 37 years as a Navy SEAL, and architect of the special operations raid in 2011 that killed terrorist Osama bin Laden.

His years in the military, McRaven said in an interview with The Washington Post, informed his thinking on a key issue he faced after taking office in January: how to prevent and respond to sexual assault. Job one, he said, is to learn as much as possible about the scope of the problem.

This month, the 217,000-student system announced the launch of a $1.7 million, multi-year study of sexual assault at 13 of its campuses, including the flagship in Austin.

There will be online questionnaires for students; surveys and focus groups of faculty, staff and campus law enforcement; and a four-year study of a cohort of hundreds of entering freshmen to identify the psychological and economic impact of sexual violence.

The Texas study will be one of the most ambitious in a research movement that has emerged nationwide to help colleges and universities get a handle on sexual assault. Separately, UT at Austin also is participating in a study of sexual assault at more than two dozen prominent universities organized by the Association of American Universities. Results from an AAU survey conducted last spring are expected to be released soon, perhaps as early as next month.

A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll published in June found that 20 percent of young women nationwide who attended residential colleges during the past four years said they were sexually assaulted. Most of those incidents were never reported to colleges or law enforcement agencies.

[More on the Post/Kaiser poll and on stories from sexual assault survivors.]

In June, the University of Michigan — another powerhouse in public higher ed — released results of a campus survey on sexual misconduct. It found that more than 20 percent of female undergraduates at Michigan said they were victims of non-consensual sexual behavior within the past year. The behavior ranged from unwanted touching to sexual penetration.

[Read about the Michigan survey.]

Despite such evidence, there are skeptics who say that the prevalence of sexual assault among college students has been overstated. They cite Justice Department data showing that college women experience rape or sexual assault at a lower rate than those who are not in college. Others have raised concerns that colleges are not doing enough to protect the rights of students accused of sexual assault.

How big is the sexual assault problem at UT?

“I don’t know,” McRaven said. “My experience tells me I don’t have enough data just yet.”

William H. McRaven, UT system chancellor.

McRaven said he sees reports of incidents through police blotters, but he is “concerned that there may be folks out there that are afraid to come forward.”

McRaven said he believes Texas system campuses have been taking a “proactive” approach to the problem since before his arrival. “I don’t want to imply that I didn’t think we were up to speed,” he said.

He drew a comparison to his time in the military. When he was a three-star admiral, he said, there were signs of unreported sexual assaults in one of his commands. He didn’t believe, at first, that the issue was widespread. But he didn’t want to dismiss it either. So he asked for a survey of personnel.

“Frankly, I was stunned by the results,” he said. “The problem was a lot more entrenched, and a lot broader, than I thought it was.” Victims, he said, “were afraid to come forward” and were “not confident in the reporting process.”

That is often true at colleges as well.

The UT system study will be conducted by researchers at the School of Social Work in Austin. Students will be asked to anonymously answer questions about their experiences with sexual violence. There also will be focus groups of faculty, staff, law enforcement, administrators and student leaders at campuses in El Paso, Arlington, Austin and Galveston. Those will examine how crimes are reported and how the university responds.

Researchers also plan to look at the economic impact of sexual assault, including what schools are spending to address it through prevention, counseling and adjudication; and what students lose when an incident occurs and they are forced to suspend their studies, transfer or drop out.

Noël Busch-Armendariz, director of UT Austin’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, will lead the study. She said there are plans to track the experiences of about 600 incoming students at Austin who would volunteer to be part of the study over four years. Researchers want to learn what experiences this group has had with sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking and domestic violence, and how they have responded. “If they become victims, what do they do?” Busch-Armendariz asked. “If their friends become victims, what do they do?”

Busch-Armendariz said she hopes the study will help illuminate a hidden problem.

“Let’s tell ourselves the truth all along the way,” she said.