Stanford University was sharply criticized on Monday for pushing an interpretation of campus-wide sexual assault data that activists said is misleading.
Like many universities across the country facing pressure from activists, survivors, and even the White House, Stanford University conducted a campus climate survey to compile statistics about sexual assaults.
In a press release and campus-wide emails, Stanford promoted the figure that 1.9% or "about 2 percent" of undergraduate and graduate students are sexually assaulted – a statistic activists are calling “dangerous.” The figure is an average of women, men, and “gender diverse” students’ experience with sexual assault.
“To us, any number above zero is unacceptable,” Stanford president John L. Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy wrote in a letter to students, faculty, and staff, adding that the results of the survey will be used to strengthen the university’s approach to preventing and responding to sexual assault.
“The results of this survey show clearly that we have much more work to do in battling sexual assault and misconduct,” Hennessy added in a press release. "These findings point to unacceptable behaviors that are fundamentally inconsistent with our community values. The results also indicate that we must enhance our support for students in crisis or distress.”
But what the survey results do not clearly disclose, several advocacy groups told BuzzFeed News, is that almost half of female undergraduate students reported experiencing a serious incident of sexual violence.
“I was instantly taken aback by the 1.9 number,” Elisabeth Dee a Stanford junior and activist on campus told BuzzFeed News. “I felt there was no way that was correct. To put out that only 1.9% of students experience sexual assault is misleading and dangerous.”
Dee said she believes the university is pushing this statistic for “good publicity,” and to avoid having to deal with “a very serious issue on campus.”
“I think of it as Stanford saying it can manipulate data to skew the problem,” Tessa Ormenyi, a 2014 Stanford alumna who served on panel reviewing cases of sexual violence on campus, told BuzzFeed News.
Lisa Lapin, Stanford's vice president of communications, defended the survey to BuzzFeed News and said the university takes sexual assaults very seriously.
"Stanford conducted the most thorough and detailed climate survey of any university to date, with the most comprehensive an exhaustive results all shared with the public," Lapin said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "It was important to convey the total scope of sexual assault at Stanford, because the issue impacts all communities at the university—not only undergraduate women."
Stanford released results of a Campus Climate Survey last week – the latest in a series of reports from universities across the country on sexual assault on campus. The survey was conducted in the spring 2015 semester.
Stanford’s report said that nearly 43.3% female undergraduates – a rate comparable with other universities across the country including Harvard and Yale – reported a serious case of sexual wrongdoing.
That rate was obtained by adding the 6.5% of senior women who reported being sexually assaulted while at Stanford to the 36.8% of senior women who experienced serious sexual misconduct. (Focusing on senior respondents allows for students to respond with a four-year average.)
Stanford then arrived at the 1.9% figure – touted in emails and press releases – by combining the number of reported sexual assaults on women with the same results for “gender diverse” students and men – significantly decreasing the percentage.
Activists added that the university also shouldn't have separately categorized “sexual assault” and “sexual misconduct."
Dee said Stanford's definition of sexual assault in the survey is extremely narrow, mirroring California’s criminal statue for actual attempted rape. In order for a survey respondent to be considered a sexual assault victim, Dee said, they have to have been incapacitated – essentially intoxicated to the point of being asleep, unconscious, or unable to resist or respond during the assault.
If a student reported being drunk, but not unconscious, the incident was recorded as sexual misconduct.
“Every single woman who was raped under duress was only counted as a victim of misconduct,” Dee said. “This created very low numbers for sexual assault and a concomitantly inflated to the amount of misconduct.”
Lapin, the university spokesperson stood by the definitions used in the survey. "Our definitions ... are identical to those in California law and our policies are consistent," she said.
Both Dee and Ormenyi also criticized the structure of the survey, saying Stanford did not use questions from the Association of American Universities survey – which was used at schools across the country, including Harvard and Yale.
The activists said that students had to click "yes" to both “alcohol and/or drug incapacitation” and to a question asking if they were unconscious or unable to resist the assault. Unless the student marked "yes" on the question of if they were unconscious, the incident was marked as misconduct, both Dee and Ormenyi said.
“Basically they’re saying that unless you were drunk to the point of unconsciousness, it doesn’t count as rape,” Dee said.
Stanford acknowledged that the categories should be "interpreted with caution" in the appendix of the report:
“For some types of nonconsensual sexual acts and tactics, there was not exact alignment between the survey questions and a Stanford police category. In those cases, respondents’ answers were assigned the category that was the best match. Depending on the facts of each individual incident, some of the acts categorized here as sexual assault might be more properly characterized as sexual misconduct and vice versa. Without knowing the details of each incident, the category applied was the most likely fit, but these categories should be interpreted with caution.”
“There is nothing per se wrong with that narrow definition so long as it is clear that the real number of serious sexual misconduct and sexual violence is 43.3%,” Ormenyi said.
Sofie Karasek, one of the founders of the national sexual assault activist group End Rape on Campus, told BuzzFeed News that Stanford's language was a "blatant cover up."
“I’m just really surprised that they would make this such a blatant cover up because [sexual assault on campus] is an issue that’s being scrutinized so heavily,” Karasek said. “It’s really surprising to me that they would try to run from this issue in such an obvious way.”
“It’s very clear [Stanford] is prioritizing their own image over the safety of students,” Karasek added.
Dee pointed to a statistic in the survey that showed that 46% of female students believe it is very likely that Stanford would take any report of sexual assault seriously.
“The lack of safety in our administration," Dee said, "is extremely telling and very sad."
Concerns of sexual violence are not foreign on Stanford’s campus. In February, Brock Turner, a Stanford student-athlete was charged with allegedly raping an intoxicated, unconscious woman at a campus fraternity party. Brock withdrew from Stanford but he faces charges that, if convicted, could lead to up to 10 years in prison.
Last year, protests erupted on campus when student Leah Francis reported being sexually assaulted. Her assailant was found responsible for sexual assault. The university withheld his degree for two years, but he was not suspended or expelled. He can return to campus for graduate school in the fall of 2016, according to the Stanford Daily.
Francis filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and Stanford is now one of the 100 other universities under investigation for their handing of sexual assault cases.
Read Stanford's report:
Mary Ann Georgantopoulos is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Mary Ann Georgantopoulos at email@example.com.
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