Close to two months after the release of a Stanford University climate survey with controversial results on campus sexual assault, Provost John Etchemendy responded directly to concerns and criticisms raised by students and faculty in a statement issued Wednesday.
Etchemendy's statement, a series of questions and answers, defends the survey's methodology but reiterates that "Stanford students experience sexual assault and sexual misconduct far too frequently on our campus, and this is simply unacceptable."
Stanford came under fire in the weeks after the survey for highlighting in a press release what students and faculty said was an impossibly low overall rate of sexual assault at Stanford of 1.9 percent. The university was also criticized for using a very narrow definition of sexual assault that student-activists and faculty said could have led to the low sexual-assault rates and artificially inflated the number of students who were categorized as experiencing the less-severe sexual misconduct.
At a town hall meeting last Friday, students called on Etchemendy to issue a new press release to not only address their methodological concerns about the survey, but offer a sign of good faith to a student body losing trust in its administration that Stanford is committed to working on sexual-assault issues with transparency and fidelity.
In his statement, Etchemendy denied the claim that Stanford has "intentionally downplayed" the prevalence of campus sexual assault and said "it is unfortunate that critics of the survey have focused on a single number that we reported -- the rate of sexual assault in the entire population surveyed -- as if we did not also report the rate in the relevant subgroups."
He said the overall rate is also important to illustrate that sexual assault can impact all students, particularly "students with alternative gender identities," though the approximately 150 students who identified as transgender, gender-queer, gender non-conforming or preferred another term were averaged into the 9,067 students who responded to the survey.
"If readers are concerned that Stanford is trying to downplay the situation on campus, I strongly recommend they read the entire 35-page report on the findings in the Stanford Campus Climate Survey," Etchemendy wrote. "It paints a sobering picture, not a rosy one."
Etchemendy also addressed criticisms that Stanford's recently narrowing of its definition of sexual assault impacted the survey results. Stanford now defines sexual assault as, specifically, vaginal or anal intercourse, digital penetration, oral copulation or penetration with a foreign object "accomplished by use of (i) force, violence, duress or menace; or (ii) inducement of incapacitation or knowingly taking advantage of an incapacitated person," university policy reads.
Until October 2014, Stanford used a broader definition: an "actual, attempted or threatened unwanted sexual act" accomplished through force, violence, duress, fear or fraud or when a person is incapacitated.
Sexual misconduct, on the other hand, includes acts such as unwanted touching or kissing of an intimate body part (whether directly or through clothing); and recording, photographing, transmitting, viewing or distributing intimate or sexual images without the knowledge and consent of all parties involved, according to university policy. Some of these acts would be considered sexual battery under California law.
Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, a sexual-assault reform advocate who helped develop the university's original adjudication procedure for sexual-assault cases, said failing to explain the change in definition that went into effect last October is "misleading."
"I think this encapsulates the problem, which is there's an effort underway here to shade what has happened," she said in an interview Wednesday. "Even though what Stanford (News) Report says is that he's addressing (these issues) 'head on,' this answer is very far from head on."
Stanford has long aligned its sexual-assault definition with California law, Etchemendy noted, but Dauber pointed out that while Stanford shifted its definition last year to exclude sexual battery and "consent procured by fraud," California rape law has not changed in any relevant way. Senior University Counsel Lauren Schoenthaler, who said Friday that the definition ties to the university's newly expected sanction of expulsion, also acknowledged that acts that would be considered criminal under state law are considered sexual misconduct at Stanford.
Tessa Ormenyi, a recent Stanford graduate and co-founder of student group Stand With Leah, said Etchemendy "continued to misrepresent Stanford's own very narrow definition of sexual assault since he incorrectly says: 5 percent of undergraduate women have experienced sexual assault -- a sexual act involving force, violence or incapacitation." (This was Stanford's definition prior to the changes implemented in October 2014.)
"It appears our own Provost is unaware at how narrowly Stanford has defined sexual assault," Ormenyi said. "Students are very angry about the narrowing of the definition without public input or announcement."
She suggested that Stanford issue a new climate survey in the spring that would be based on a widely circulated American Association of Universities (AAU) survey that 27 colleges and universities across the nation participated in. (Stanford decided not to participate and instead created its own survey in partnership with the University of Chicago and Rice University based on one developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)
"This would be the best remedy," Ormenyi said, "since students perceive the Stanford administration as intentionally deceitful and untrustworthy."
Etchemendy wrote that some of the most "significant" findings out of the survey were those that indicated many undergraduate students, particularly students of color, transgender and gender non-conforming students, feel the university's support services fall short in addressing their needs.
At Friday's town hall, a transgender student told Etchemendy her experience with regards to sexual assault is that it is "extremely cis-normative," or affirming of binary, male and female gender identities rather than taking a more expansive view. She also criticized the term "gender diverse," which the university survey used to describe students who identify as transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, preferred another term, and/or selected multiple gender identities.
"I want to know what the university is doing to tackle that," the student told Etchemendy. "How are you making all these efforts non cis-normative?"
Etchemendy said further survey analysis is underway to examine who at Stanford might be at most risk of sexual violence on campus (for example, freshman women), whether more misconduct happens in "particular living environments" and whether there are locations on campus where students feel particularly unsafe.
A "top priority for further analysis" is also to dive deeper into the experiences of specific student groups, "to look at more granular results by school and segments of students, such as the experience of student athletes or professional school students," Etchemendy wrote.
The survey also indicated that Stanford needs to "better understand" how to support and encourage students who have been sexually assaulted to come forward and formally report their assaults, he said. The university is currently seeking feedback on a new pilot adjudication process that will, ideally, streamline the process and make it less onerous for victims of sexual assault.
Ongoing scrutiny of Stanford's handling of sexual assault continues as the central body that deals with such cases, the Title IX office, is currently in transition, without a permanent coordinator. Catherine Criswell, Stanford's first-ever dedicated Title IX coordinator, stepped down in September after only a year on the job. Cathy Glaze, associate dean for students affairs at the law school, is leading the Title IX office on an interim basis after the initially selected interim coordinator stepped down.
Etchemendy said that recruiting permanent employees to staff the Title IX office is "increasingly difficult."
Universities nationwide are finding these jobs to be very hard to fill," he wrote. "The work is inherently demanding and difficult, and no matter how well you perform your job, you are inevitably criticized, sometimes viciously and personally, by one side or the other. To top it off, thanks to student privacy laws, you can never defend your actions in any public forum. It is hard to imagine a more difficult role to take on."
Etchemendy's statement also followed a satirical op-ed published in student newspaper the Stanford Daily on Sunday. Titled "The press release we deserved," the op-ed included fabricated statements from Etchemendy and other administrators addressing students' concerns about the climate survey and definition of sexual assault.
In his statement, Etchemendy said he "welcome(s) all of the activity that has been initiated by our students and the focus on this problem by the ASSU leadership over the past several years. Productive, open, respectful and truthful conversation around sexual violence will provide the greatest benefit to the campus community in tackling these critically important issues."