Stanford Faculty Senate weighs in on controversial climate survey

Faculty recommends releasing more data around sexual violence

A controversial climate survey conducted at Stanford University last year provides "valuable information" on the prevalence of sexual assault and relationship violence, the university's Faculty Senate agreed last week, weighing in on a campus debate over the quality and credibility of the survey and its results.

The Faculty Senate unanimously approved a resolution on Thursday, April 28, that largely backs the university survey, but does recommend a review of particular terms used to describe sexual violence as well as the release of new and more detailed data.

This was in contrast, in part, with a growing chorus of criticism from students, faculty and alumni groups who have demanded the university issue a new survey. They argue that flawed survey methodology skewed the results and that university communication around the issue presented a misleading picture of sexual violence on campus.

Stanford, for its part, has consistently defended its survey and rejected any perception that it sought to sweep the severity of the issue of sexual violence under the rug as "wrong," Provost John Etchemendy has said.

In a student-government resolution, student-body referendum, 31 faculty-signed letter and separate letters signed by more than 100 alumni and more than 200 graduate students, critics have called on the university to administer what they say is a superior climate survey used by 27 universities who belong to the Association of American Universities (AAU), a national higher-education consortium. Administering this survey would also allow Stanford to benchmark itself with some of its peer schools, critics have argued.

The Faculty Senate did not support this call, but its members agreed in the resolution that they "deeply empathize with, and share, student concerns about unwanted sexual contact."

"The principal purposes of a climate survey are to assess the incidence of prohibited sexual conduct; to understand the circumstances under which non-consensual sexual acts occur; and to identify strategies for prevention, response efforts, corrective action, and education," the resolution states. "The Stanford Campus Climate Survey of 2015 provides valuable information on the occurrence of sexual and relationship violence at Stanford, and reveals a deeply disturbing occurrence of prohibited sexual conduct."

The resolution also recommends that the university expand its mandatory education on sexual and relationship violence to include graduate students, post-doctoral scholars and staff.

The resolution was developed by the Senate's steering committee, whose members spent time speaking with students and faculty about their concerns, reading the Stanford and AAU surveys as well as those used by other schools.

"The steering committee as a group decided that we did not want to constrain what survey would be used in the future," Kathryn Moler, chair of the Faculty Senate, said in an interview with the Weekly. "I think what's really important to keep in mind is that there is a nationally evolving dialogue about what is the best way to do a survey. We want our next survey to be informed by what we've learned and by what has been learned at other schools."

More important than comparing Stanford to its peer schools, said Susan McConnell, a steering-committee member and biology professor, is understanding the full extent of the problem at Stanford.

"What we came down again and again and again to as a group within the steering committee and within the Senate as a whole was the realization that the important thing is not comparing the number at Stanford to Harvard or Princeton or UCLA or wherever," McConnell told the Weekly. "The issue is to understand to what extent relationship violence and sexual assault and unwelcome behaviors are happening on our campus, to figure out what are the circumstances under which these behaviors are occurring and then to figure out what to do about it."

McConnell, herself a victim of relationship violence, said after taking both the Stanford and AAU surveys, she found Stanford's to be the "far superior instrument." Its questions were more clear and comprehensive than the AAU survey questions, she said.

The university has said it opted against using the education consortium's survey because it was not able to see the survey before being required to commit to it, would not have been able to tailor questions specific to Stanford nor have access to the raw data and were concerned about getting a high-response rate.

University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin wrote in an email to the Weekly that there has also been "widespread concern expressed about the AAU survey and methodology."

"It is in the best interest of our students and far more productive to focus attention and resources on using the valuable information provided by the survey to strengthen service and support to the campus community," Lapin wrote.

Where Stanford's survey fell short, though, McConnell said, was using a narrow definition for what constitutes as sexual assault versus the less-severe sexual "misconduct."

The survey found that far more students experience sexual "misconduct" (14.2 percent of all students and 32.9 percent of undergraduate women) than sexual assault (1.9 percent of all students and 4.7 percent of undergraduate women). Critics of the survey have pointed to Stanford's narrow definition of sexual assault, which unlike most other universities, excludes sexual touching due to force or incapacitation as one reason for a high rate of sexual misconduct and too-low rate of sexual assault. (Several peer schools found undergraduate women experienced sexual assault at more than double Stanford's rate.)

"In consideration of concerns about misunderstanding or misstating the severity of certain experiences," the Senate resolution recommends that the university review the nomenclature for these two categories.

The resolution also calls for a release of more survey data and analysis. Lapin said previously that the university is "in the process of releasing further analysis from the survey, as has long been planned."

One faculty member, Professor of Medicine Andrew Hoffman, made a motion to use the AAU survey in the future, but it was not seconded.

He told the Weekly that he made the motion not because one survey was significantly better than the other, but in the hopes that it would help move the campus community forward from what's become a divisive issue.

"The instrument was becoming the issue and not the actual conduct," Hoffman said.

The motion was a way to "change the climate around us," he said.

Provost Etchemendy supported the resolution, saying implementing it will "make Stanford a better institution" in a Stanford News story.

President John Hennessy told the Faculty Senate the rate at which undergraduate women experience non-consensual sexual contact is "disgraceful" and that Stanford has a "serious problem."

"We have documented it, and we must aggressively address it through education, prevention, support and adjudication," he said. "We need to get on with changing our culture and educating our community."

Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, a staunch advocate for sexual-assault reform at Stanford and one of the 31 faculty-letter signatures, called the Faculty Senate's resolution a "partial victory."

While she was disappointed that the Senate did not support administering the AAU survey, "we consider it a very significant victory that the Senate expressed concern over misstatement of the survey results due to the narrow definition of assault," she said.

"That alone is a very significant victory for those concerned about this issue at Stanford," Dauber added.

The resolution also did not respond to a concern Dauber and others have expressed about a particular question on Stanford's survey regarding incapacitation due to drugs or alcohol.

The way Stanford worded this question sets it apart from everu other commonly used climate survey, Dauber has said, and confusion around it could have also contributed to an artificially low rate of sexual assault.

Dauber said the fallout over Stanford's climate survey offers an "object lesson" for why there should be a federally mandated, uniform climate survey used at colleges and universities across the country.

Proposed legislation to do just that is currently underway: the Campus Accountability & Safety Act (CASA), introduced in the Senate last year, and the Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency (HALT) Act, introduced in the House last year, both aim to increase transparency through a standardized national survey.

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


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct inaccurate information about the number of faculty who signed a letter calling on Stanford University to administer a new climate survey. There are now 31 signatures, not 27. It was also updated to correct inaccurate information about when the Association of American Universities' survey methodology was publicly released.

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12 people like this
Posted by Community Member
a resident of Portola Valley
on May 6, 2016 at 10:26 am

I expected a story about climate change and global warming! Perhaps a better headline would be in order?

11 people like this
Posted by Angry Female Alum
a resident of another community
on May 6, 2016 at 10:43 am

It is very unfortunate that John Etchemendy, Stanford's provost, has chosen to ignore the concerns of a sizeable number of tenured faculty (31) including many who are experienced survey researchers. That alone is sufficient cause for concern about his handling of this matter. Is he handling this as a dispassionate scholar or is he defending the University's reputation and brand?

When scholars consider an issue like survey construction and item framing they should not do so by disregarding the feedback and concern of other scholars who are expert in the field. Why, for example, is the university t ignoring the social scientists (many of whom are eminent leaders in the field) in favor of the view of Professor McConnell, who though a respected neurobiologist who according to the internet studies mammalian brain neurons has no expertise in survey methods. I suspect that McConnell would be uninterested (and rightly so) in the view of social scientists as to "production of neurons from progenitor cells." Why then would she feel qualified to just disregard the views of her colleagues as to the best way to gather and analyze data from social science surveys? All the faculty senate established is that it serves at the pleasure of the President.

Also, why is the university President presenting the community with the false dichotomy between getting the survey right and addressing sexual assault on campus? Why cannot the university do both? Why can Stanford not both have the best survey that will yield the best data AND begin to address sexual assault?

Of course, this is an entirely false choice, and Stanford can and should do both. It is being put forward to silence critics and portray them as if they are somehow stopping the University from doing prevention by asking for good data to guide that work. "Let us get about the business of solving the problem we do not yet understand!" demand President Hennessy. "Get out of the way, you are stopping us from doing something we should have done decades ago and that we have literally no excuse for not having done before now!"

It seems to any dispassionate observer that Stanford is embarrassed that its survey includes an error that led to an erroneously (and non-credibly) low result. No serious social scientist would see a result like 1.9% of students sexually assaulted (4.7% of undergraduate females) and find it believable without extensive further testing and probing.

The conduct of Stanford's administration has tarnished the reputation of the school for conducting research with integrity. The vehemence with which the university has singled out and attacked those who have expressed concern has been inconsistent with academic freedom and with respectful, if forceful, debate. The whole episode has been and continues to be shocking and is a basis for what over 100 alumni have said, which is that we are withholding our financial support from Stanford until it changes course and joins the national survey and tells the truth about rape at Stanford.

As a female alum who has many peers who were sexually assaulted and/or harassed (including by faculty), I would personally suggest that the alumni pool those funds that would have been donated to Stanford and give them to an organization that supports sexual assault survivors such as the Victims' Rights Law Center. Or perhaps use them to give an award for courage to the 31 signers of the faculty letter for standing up for science against group think and brand protection. This is a bad day for Stanford.

6 people like this
Posted by Voracious Reader
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 6, 2016 at 1:35 pm

I have read in different publications ( one in England, when I was there recently!) that for a relatively small campus, Stanford has nearly SIX TIMES the number of student-on-student rapes than any other college or University in America! Stanford also has nearly three times the number of all crimes in general ( assault, battery, illicit drug use, theft, etc) than any other college or University in America.

What's up with this??? It makes me wonder if William Shockley, who my father knew and thought was a nut case, was right: that certain criminal traits coexist naturally in people of high intelligence! He was talking about murder as well as white collar crime at the time ( early 80s), but I wonder if he was onto something?

I hate to even think it, but I can't help wondering why Stanford has had so many problems with on-campus crime in general ( severe enough that the police must be called) and rape, specifically.

Perhaps they need to screen applicants more carefully? Forbid, and strongly punish, any signs of inebriation or drug abuse by students.

Suspending a student offender for one semester is barely a slap on the hand, not real punishment!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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