Days after the release of new sexual assault data from a survey conducted by the Association of American Universities, University administrators stressed in an exclusive interview with The Michigan Daily on Thursday that they remain committed to preventing sexual misconduct — while also acknowledging that some of their efforts are not reaching students as effectively as they’d hope.
Twenty-eight schools participated in the AAU survey, including the University. Compared to other schools, many of the University’s results showed both higher instances of sexual assault and higher disillusion with the process of adjudicating it.
Nationwide, 11.7 percent of surveyed college students experienced nonconsensual sexual contact as a result of force or incapacitation since entering college, according to the survey. The figure was 14.6 percent at the University.
Whereas 63.3 percent of all students surveyed felt campus officials would take a report of sexual misconduct seriously, only 40.2 percent of University students surveyed believed this to be true.
Research Prof. William Axinn, a survey research expert, explained that though the differences in these numbers appear meaningful, they lack statistical significance. For example, he said, after several students at the University voiced concerns about potentially triggering language in the AAU survey, that language was changed in the survey during the process of distributing it at other schools.
“AAU changed the way they did that at other campuses after we gave them that feedback,” Axinn said. “We were among the very first to go, and it was a mistake, so we helped them fix it further. When you say, ‘Oh, the statistics are different coming out of different schools,’ it turns out they sort of did a different survey everywhere. It’s ‘the same,’ but not really the same. It means two percentage points is not very big.”
Furthermore, he said, it’s important to remember that the AAU survey still featured a relatively small sample; 28 schools are not necessarily representative of a national landscape.
Regardless of comparisons to peer institutions, University President Mark Schlissel said these results represent a disconnect between the University’s intentions and the end result when treating cases of sexual misconduct.
“We take every report of potential assault or misconduct of any kind very seriously,” Schlissel said. “So the obvious problem is that we are not getting that message across in a way that the students either hear or believe.”
E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, echoed this sentiment, and added that it is the University administration’s responsibility to prove wrong those who doubt the University’s intentions.
“Certainly people’s perception is the reality that they’ve experienced,” she said. “Whatever the reason is, we know that is not the work we’re doing or the intent of the work that we’re doing or the commitment of the institution. So we just have to work harder to make sure that that assertion simply is not true.”
As for application of the numbers — both from the AAU survey and the University’s internal survey — Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, said student input will be essential moving forward.
“What the institution is doing this semester, specifically, is really working hard on engaging with our students in many different ways — along with our faculty and staff — to take a hard, critical look at our current sexual misconduct policy and really ask for our students to engage with us on some suggestive revisions that are coming down the pike,” Milkovich said.
Harper said she plans to send out an all-student e-mail next week further elaborating upon the plans to involve students in the process of evaluating the University’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy.
Broadly, Milkovich said student organizations, units of Student Life and Central Student Government are partnering to host forums during the revision process. During the events, students will have the opportunity to evaluate revision drafts, ask questions and provide feedback.
Milkovich also mentioned that, beyond pre-existing programming such as Change it Up or Relationship Remix, SAPAC has been working with Recreational Sports to create a poster campaign to appear in facilities across campus. These posters will “reinforce the fundamentals of respect,” including consent.
“We want to be reinforcing that healthy relationships are a part of an overall wellness,” Milkovich said. “So those kinds of messaging, specific to the ways that students engage in sports on our campus … is an example of those targeted kinds of education efforts that need to complement the big-scale work that we’re doing. And all of that has to happen on many different levels.”
As in previous interviews, the administrators present emphasized that sexual misconduct has become a community problem — one that will require a cultural shift on the part of the students and not only through new policies.
“Anything that involves 20 or 30 percent of a population, that’s not a rare event — this is everyday life, this is culture,” Schlissel said. “And that highlights for me that the University isn’t going to be able to solve this problem without the students stepping up and working with us to solve the problem, because it’s the student culture that is supporting or allowing this milieu to exist. We’ll only be successful if we find ways for University leaders to work with students and students leaders and also the broader student community on solutions.”
“I’ve made much less of a big deal about the difference between Michigan’s numbers and the average of this larger group simply because the average of the larger group is unacceptable,” he added. “Regardless of what the number is, it requires our maximum attention, because it’s unreasonable.”
Schlissel also noted that despite high rates of sexual misconduct, the rate of people who who reported feeling unsafe on campus is relatively low — a seeming contradiction that Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones said the University is struggling to mitigate.
“I know that at the University of Michigan, we are a national leader in prevention work and that we’re not just doing the minimum of what’s expected of us,” Blake Jones said. “All of our students have very high … numbers of participating in multiple experiences of prevention, and yet our numbers are the way they are. For me, that’s the emotional piece … our model is what so many campuses are working to replicate and do right now, and we’ve been doing that and sustaining that and our numbers are still as bad as they are.”
Milkovich noted that data from programs such as Relationship Remix show that positive teachings about consent and healthy behavior begin to “wear off” after about a year.
“More efforts to our students across the course of their student life span is a frontier that we need to figure out how we will reach,” she said.
The hope, Blake Jones said, is to reach a point where students start leading the conversation as opposed to having administrators start it. The Office of Student Life has been providing training for “high-impact” groups on campus — including ROTC, Greek life, the Michigan Marching Band, student-athletes and club-sport athletes — with the hope that their collective visibility and influence will allow them to lead the rest of the student community in promoting each other’s wellbeing and preventing, among other behaviors, sexual misconduct.
Blake Jones said the University is alone among other Division 1 institutions in requiring every member of every team — including athletes, coaches and assistant coaches — to take sexual misconduct training.
“The takeaway ending messages to students in the training is that if the campus climate is really going to change … it’s going to be the actions of not the dean of students sitting in the Michigan Union, or SAPAC ardently doing their work, but the people who have been inside these programs living and practicing the skills and interrupting situations of potential harm before they escalate,” Blake Jones said.
Shifting the responsibility to students, it seems, may play a big role moving forward — especially, as Axinn noted, when “these data are as far from perfect as data can be.”
“You are all adults,” Schlissel said. “This is the way your community is treating one another, so think about that. We have to think about that together and try to solve this issue together.”