Creating a Safer Campus

Professor Diane Follingstad is an endowed chair and director of UK's Center for Research on Violence Against Women. Along with many other dedicated professionals, she is one of the key reasons we are taking a leadership role in the country in efforts to educate our campus community about sexual assault. Recently, we put together some of our thoughts about the importance of the first-ever mandatory campus climate survey that we conducted and why it was an important part of our efforts to build a safer, more welcoming community.

There is no shortage of startling statistics or compelling numbers.

Like so many of our sister institutions, at the University of Kentucky we understand well the struggle of counselors assisting students anguished by sexual assault.  

We watch as our campus police and student affairs officials navigate with great sensitivity the thicket of regulations of what must be reported and judged in the context of an increasingly complex set of codes of conduct.

Now, as INSIDE HIGHER ED recently reported, both advocates and critics are taking aim at climate surveys being utilized on a number of campuses to ascertain perceptions and experiences of students relative to sexual assault and other forms of interpersonal violence. The questions they raise are difficult:

Do certain kinds of survey questions -- more general in nature or so-called behaviorally specific -- encourage or inhibit responses? What obligations do universities have to publicly report numbers and results? And what kind of environment do such disclosures create on campuses, places where these issues already are the source in many cases of controversy and debate?

But what if the numbers and statistics could actually be part of creating a campus environment that is safer and more open to the kind of change we all believe is critically important?

At the University of Kentucky, we don't claim to have all the answers. No one does. But we do believe these surveys can play an important role in creating the campuses we all want and that our students deserve.

Most importantly, we believe that campus surveys work best when everyone participates.

This spring, we became perhaps the first university in the country to require every student to participate in a campus-wide climate survey. Before being able to register for the fall semester, students completed a 25-minute survey that gauged attitudes and experiences across a range of issues relative to sexual assault and other forms of harassment and violence. Thus far, approximately 25,000 students out of 26,000 have participated, with only a handful of concerns raised. It was the first of five years of annual, mandatory surveys to be funded by the Office of the President and managed by the faculty of the Center for Research on Violence Against Women.

The decision to make the survey mandatory was not made lightly.  It is an internal quality improvement project we implemented because of our belief that the entire student population should have a “voice” in issues of campus safety by having the opportunity to provide their perceptions and experiences. A small sample, understandably, may be impacted by respondents motivated by incentives or who have a personal stake in the topic.  But, in requiring the survey, we carefully considered the ethical aspects of mandatory student participation.  Substantial protections were put in place to ensure student privacy through honest brokers and de-identification of the data before analysis.  To protect students’ ability to consent, every question included the response option of “choose not to answer.”

And we believe we were able to collect behaviorally specific experiences of sexual violence that would meet Clery reporting requirements without repetitive explicit language.  

Several additional reasons were significant for our decision to utilize a mandatory survey:

  • When a survey is required, it tells everyone on campus -- from the top down -- that they have a stake in this issue. A mandatory, campus-wide survey signals that finding answers and involving everyone in that process is a commitment embedded in our values; it is part of who we are.
  • As a result, it becomes more than simply a survey, but potentially an educational tool for the entire campus.  Questions regarding knowledge of resources and policies allow students to gain insights that they might not otherwise have had; they may be more likely to understand, along with faculty and staff, what resources are in place to help deal with these important issues. And, in turn, administrators and others undoubtedly learn more about the experiences confronting students and levels of knowledge about available resources.
  • It allows all stakeholders to participate from the beginning -- from student affairs and the legal counsel's office, to police, public relations, and information technology. In our case, early involvement from IT was instrumental in making the process seamless and relatively painless in terms of removing holds on registration and in ensuring that students could easily access the survey instrument.
  • The fact that the survey was mandatory -- and was communicated so consistently as a priority -- was itself, we believe, responsible for a small number of complaints and concerns. There was support and participation from the beginning. It was a clear priority for everyone.

There is tremendous value in a long-term, longitudinal project that gauges student attitudes, opinions and perceptions regarding this most important of issues, but we believe there is more at stake here.  We envision the opportunity to use this ongoing study to make changes, where necessary, in policies and procedures to make our campus a safer, more inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone. We can address gaps where they exist, over time, and evaluate the impact of those changes. Only an ongoing, rigorous survey provides the foundation for such continuous internal improvement.

 Now, we are making plans to publicly release the results of our survey as the fall semester begins. Students were full participants in the survey process. They must be full participants in the campus conversation and decisions that determine our path forward.

In addition, we are making plans to host a conference for all colleges and universities in Kentucky, where we will talk about our experience in developing and administering the survey and, we hope to broadly offer the technology and expertise we have developed in collecting and analyzing the results.

This isn't, after all, an issue for one campus or one state. It's an issue for all of us. At the same time, we know that one year of surveys does not represent some panacea for this incredibly complex and difficult issue. It isn't. No one strategy does that.

But this tool, shared and experienced by everyone on our campus, reflects the importance of the issue to all of us. It says something profoundly important about what we value and what we hope together we can become.