A growing chorus of students, faculty and now alumni are calling on Stanford University to issue a new climate survey to more accurately capture the prevalence of sexual violence on campus, describing the administration's refusal to do so as "disappointing" and "trivializ(ing)" the concerns of many students and faculty.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 27 faculty members and more than 90 alumni had signed two separate letters supporting a recently passed student referendum asking Stanford to replace what they describe as a problematic campus climate survey conducted last year.
These students, faculty and alumni support administering a new survey based on one that the national higher-education nonprofit the Association of American Universities (AAU) conducted in 2015. While 26 public and private universities, from Harvard and Brown to the University of Arizona, participated in the AAU survey, Stanford opted to create its own, which the university said was based on one conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Students, faculty and alumni say that shifting to the more commonly used survey will not only allow Stanford to do the important work of comparing its data to many of its peer schools, but send a message that it takes seriously their concerns regarding the administration's response to sexual assault. The university has repeatedly defended the quality of its survey and rejected the sentiment held by many on campus that the results downplayed the severity of sexual violence at Stanford.
Results from Stanford's survey were widely criticized on campus almost immediately after their release in October. Students and faculty said methodological flaws led to "misleading" rates of sexual assault, and decried a university press release that led with one such rate. The survey's finding that 1.9 percent of all students both male and female, undergraduate and graduate had experienced sexual assault is "impossibly low," many student-activists and faculty members have said, and sent a damaging message to victims of sexual violence as well as the entire student body.
Last week, the Stanford student body passed by 90.6 percent a referendum asking the administration to conduct a new survey based on the Association of American Universities' methodology, to repeat the survey at least once every three years and to release the results publicly. The referendum gathered 1,975 "yes" votes, student newspaper the Stanford Daily reported.
Matthew Cohen, a sophomore who serves on Stanford's student government and has led the survey re-do effort, said that is an "incredible" turnout for a student election. It followed the Associated Students of Stanford University's own unanimous resolution that called for the same action. That, coupled with the faculty and alumni letters, Cohen hopes, will send a strong message to the administration.
"I think it's very clear where public support is," he said.
Provost John Etchemendy wrote in an April 17 response to the alumni letter that while "Stanford values input from students on issues important to the student experience ... The argument that the ASSU referendum should be considered the dispositive factor in future university decision-making on an issue of such complexity is, at best, questionable."
He noted that the referendum was voted on by only about 31 percent of the student body and did not include any analysis or opposing arguments.
Etchemendy also defended the university's choice not to participate in the AAU survey. Stanford was not able to see the survey before committing to it, and would not have been able to tailor questions specific to Stanford nor have access to the raw data, Etchemendy wrote. He also said that the university believes in minimizing "survey fatigue."
"All of the university's communications about the climate survey have emphasized the troubling nature of the findings and the large numbers of students experiencing some form of sexual violence," Etchemendy wrote. "We have not sought in any way to downplay the prevalence of sexual offenses at Stanford and have no reason to do so. On the contrary, we must grapple with the reality of the problem in order to address it effectively."
The faculty, though, said the survey "has come up short" in accomplishing this aim.
"Such a survey, undertaken in good faith, should have the effect of signaling Stanford's commitment to addressing this issue in a forceful and unqualified manner so as to, among other things, convince community members of both the seriousness of the issue and the robustness of Stanford's response," the group of faculty wrote. "In that, the survey has come up short."
Alumni, too, wrote in a letter addressed to the administration, faculty senate and Board of Trustees that they are "deeply troubled by the administration's efforts to trivialize the concerns of so many current students and faculty."
If Stanford does not reconsider its "disappointing refusal to administer an improved survey," the alumni wrote, "we and many other alumni will be forced to reconsider our voluntary financial support of the university."
Both letters argue that the survey's reliance on a very narrow definition of sexual assault, which excludes sexual touching due to force or incapacitation, artificially inflated the rate of students who were categorized as experiencing the less-severe sexual "misconduct" and produced a too-low number of those who had been sexually assaulted.
The survey found that 14.2 percent of all students and 32.9 percent of undergraduate women experienced sexual misconduct, while only 4.7 percent of undergraduate women had been sexually assaulted since coming to Stanford.
Stanford also phrased a survey question about incapacitation due to drugs or alcohol differently than many other universities, including the AAU schools as well as MIT, whose survey Stanford said it based its own on. Students and faculty have pointed to the question as another potential reason for the low rate of sexual assault.
Using the Association of American Universities' study, which was created by an independent research firm, would "ensure that Stanford uses a standard definition of 'sexual assault' and that its results will allow for easy comparability with peer schools," the 27 faculty wrote in their letter.
"It will also add Stanford's data to the national pool, which helps to increase the breadth of knowledge about this issue nationally, something that as scholars we believe to be an important value for a research institution to uphold," the letter states.
Alumna Nancy Leong, associate professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, said she and other alumni collaborated on their letter after feeling Stanford's response to concerns raised about the climate survey was "unsatisfying." They also wanted to show support for current students, and send a strong message that alumni who contribute to Stanford financially and in other ways, like interviewing prospective students or connecting soon-to-be graduates with job opportunities care about how the university responds to sexual violence.
"There is a great opportunity for Stanford to be a leader on this issue, but unfortunately that has not happened yet," Leong wrote in an email to the Weekly.
Leong said that while the alumni letter gained quick support 40 signatures in less than 24 hours last week, and up to the more than 90 who have signed on since then many alumni contacted her to say they support the letter but felt they couldn't sign. Some are untenured professors who feared retribution or other consequences, Leong said.
Those that signed the letter include many law professors and lawyers, including Baine Kerr, a high-profile attorney well-known for representing college-victims of sexual violence, and range from recent graduates to as far back as the class of 1968.
A subset of the signers, all law graduates, wrote a separate response to the provost this week requesting further clarification and data.
The faculty letter includes both active advocates for sexual-assault reform and others from across departments and disciplines. The signers include Shelley Correll, director of the Clayman Institute for Research on Gender; Michele Dauber, a law professor and staunch reform advocate who helped write Stanford's policies for adjudicating sexual violence; Estelle Freedman, a history professor who has written extensively about feminism, sexuality and sexual violence; as well as professors from the biology, sociology, music, English and literature departments, Stanford Medical Center and the Graduate School of Education. Seven out of 13 tenured faculty members from the Department of Sociology signed the letter.
At a faculty panel event devoted to the topic of sexual assault on Monday afternoon, Dauber said that good data around the effectiveness of Stanford's own processes for addressing sexual assault is still lacking.
"What we really suffer from is a lack of information about the processes themselves and how they work and whether they're effective," Dauber said. "We need to insist on transparency and insist on good data."
Stanford's new Title IX coordinator, Cathy Glaze, stood up from her seat in the audience during a Q&A session following the panel to say that she agrees.
"I agree that we need more transparency and I would like to start a dialogue with all of you so we can have less skepticism, more trust and we can move forward," Glaze said.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created an archive of past news articles, social media reaction and other content related to the ongoing sexual assault issues at Stanford University. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.