The chill that dropped over campus on Monday seems like an apt metaphor for the subject that’s been on my mind for the past week. Last spring, Augustana participated in a multi-institutional study focused on sexual assault campus climate that was developed and administered by the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS). We hoped that the findings from this survey would help us, 1) get a better handle on the nature and prevalence of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact among our students, and 2) better understand our campus climate surrounding sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact. We actively solicited student participation in the survey, collaborating with student government, faculty, and administration to announce the survey and encourage students to respond. The student response was unusually robust, particularly given the sensitivity of the topic. Equally important, many people across campus – students, faculty, administrators, and staff alike – took note of our announced intentions to improve and repeatedly asked when we would have information about the findings to share with the campus community. You saw the first announcement of these results on Sunday in a campus-wide email from Dean Campbell. If you attended the Monday night screening of The Hunting Ground and the panel discussion that followed, you likely heard additional references to findings from this survey. As Evelyn Campbell indicated, the full report is available from Mark Salisbury (AKA, me!) in the IR office upon request.
It has been interesting to watch the national reporting this fall as several higher ed consortia and individual institutions have begun to share data from their own studies of sexual assault and related campus climate. While some news outlets have reported in a fairly objective manner (Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education), others have tripped over their own feet trying to impose a tale of conspiracy and dark motives (Huffington Post) or face-planted trying to insert a positive spin where one doesn’t really exist (Stanford University). Moreover, the often awkward word-choices and phrasing in the institutional press releases (e.g., Princeton’s press release) announcing these data seem to accentuate the degree to which colleges and university aren’t comfortable talking about their weaknesses, mistakes, or human failings (not to mention the extent to which faculty and college administrators might need to bone up on their quantitative literacy chops!).
Amidst all of this noise, we are watching two very different rationales for transparency play out in entirely predictable ways. One rationale frames transparency as a necessary imposition from the outside, like the piercing beam of an inspector’s flashlight pointed into an ominous darkness to expose bad behavior and prove a supposition. The other rationale frames transparency as a disposition that emanates from within, cultivating an organizational dynamic that makes it possible to enact and embrace meaningful and permanent improvement.
For the most part, it seems that most of the noise being made in the national press about sexual assault data and college campuses comes from using transparency to beat institutions into submission. This is particularly apparent in the Huffington Post piece. If the headline, “Private Colleges Keep Sexual Assault Data Secret: A bunch of colleges are withholding sexual assault data, thanks to one group,” doesn’t convey their agenda clearly enough, then the first couple of paragraphs walks the reader through it. The problem in this approach to transparency is that the data too often becomes the rope in a giant tug-of-war between preconceived points of view. Both (or neither) points of view could have parts that are entirely valid, but the nuance critical to actually identifying an effective way forward gets chopped to bits in the heat of the battle. In the end, you just have winners, losers, and a lifeless coil of rope that no one cares about anymore.
Instead, transparency is more likely to lead to effective change when it is a disposition that emanates within the institution’s culture. The folks at HEDS understood this notion when they designed the protocol for conducting the survey and conveying the data. The protocol they developed specifically prohibited institutions from revealing the names of other participant institutions, forcing institutions to focus the implications of their results back on themselves. Certainly, a critical part of this process at any institution is sharing its data with its entire community and collectively addressing the need to improve. But in this situation, transparency isn’t the end goal. Rather, it becomes a part of a process that necessarily leads to an improvement and observable change. To drive this point home, HEDS has put extensive efforts into helping institutions use their data to create change that reduces sexual assault.
At Augustana, we will continue to share our own results across our community as well and tackle this problem head-on. Our own findings point to plenty of issues that will likely improve our campus climate and reduce sexual assault. I’ll write about some of these findings in more detail in the coming weeks. In the meantime, please feel free to send me an email requesting our data. I’ll send you a copy right away. And if you’d like me to bring parts of the data to your students so that they might reflect and learn, I’m happy to do that too.
Make it a good day,