With Groundbreaking Transparency, MIT Releases Report on Campus Sexual Assault

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With Groundbreaking Transparency, MIT Releases Report on Campus Sexual Assault

'We face a serious problem,' university chancellor says

MIT's 'Great Dome'. (Photo: Mathieu Thouvenin/flickr/cc)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on Monday released an unusually transparent report on sexual assault and harassment on its Cambridge campus, a move that may galvanize other institutions of higher education to take a deeper look at a national problem, and to be more forthcoming with what they find.

The report (pdf) was based on a survey that was sent to all of MIT's 10,831 undergraduate and graduate students on April 27, 2014—two days before the White House Task Force called on all U.S. colleges and universities to undertake similar surveys on their campuses. Just over 3,800 MIT students responded, representing 35 percent of the enrolled population.

"A big-name school like MIT being ahead of the curve like this matters."
—Andrea Pino, End Rape on Campus

The results show that MIT's sexual assault problem is in line with that at other colleges. Seventeen percent of undergraduate females in the MIT survey reported having been sexually assaulted, compared with 19 percent nationwide (pdf). A full 35 percent said they'd experienced some form of sexual harassment, rape, or sexual assault. While two-thirds of those respondents said they'd told someone about the incident, just 5 percent said they'd reported the experience to someone in an official capacity. Most (72 percent) respondents indicated that another MIT student was responsible for the unwanted behavior.

"I am disturbed by the extent and nature of the problem reflected in the survey results," university president L. Rafael Reif wrote in an email to MIT students and employees. "As a community, we depend on mutual respect and trust. Sexual assault violates our core MIT values. It has no place here. I am confident that, with this shared understanding and armed with this new data, the MIT community will find a path to significant positive change."

In a separate letter (pdf) to the community, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, who is spearheading the effort, said: "[T]he survey clearly tells us that, like many other colleges and universities, we face a serious problem."

Observers praised the research university for both the nature of the survey questions and the transparency with which the results were revealed.

The Boston Globe noted: "With its comprehensive survey, MIT became the highest-profile college to put such a specific estimate on the prevalence of sexual violence on campus, amid heightened national attention on the issue."

Colby Bruno, senior counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, who has handled many campus cases, told the New York Times:  "This is the best [survey] I’ve seen, and I really commend MIT for doing it, and publishing the results." 

Andrea Pino, an activist who has helped file federal complaints about sexual assault against dozens of colleges, told the Times she hoped other colleges would follow MIT's example. Other schools "have been notorious for not being open about this," said Pino, who is co-founder of the group End Rape on Campus. "A big-name school like MIT being ahead of the curve like this matters."

As part of its survey release, MIT announced steps to combat "unwanted sexual behavior" at the college, including:

  • Increasing staff to respond to those who experience sexual assault, and finding new ways to let students know where they can turn for help.
  • Removing barriers that may prevent people from seeking help by revamping procedures for reporting complaints and processes for addressing reported complaints.
  • Launching a Sexual Assault Education and Prevention Task Force.
  • Doing more to teach students about effective bystander intervention.

"MIT is a community of problem solvers," Barnhart wrote in her letter. "As we have demonstrated in the past, we are not afraid of self-examination and are very good at learning from data and facts, even unpleasant ones."

Barnhart said that she will soon host a community forum to discuss the initial survey results and next steps, and invited members of the MIT community to send ideas and comments to stop-assault@mit.edu.

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