A Call to Action by Brandeis After a New Campus Climate Survey

Sexual misconduct persists at the university, even as the survey report shows significant gains in bystander intervention and support-services awareness.

A blurry image of students walking on campus.
Mike Lovett

The second Campus Climate Survey Report, released to the Brandeis community in November, shows sexual misconduct remains unacceptably persistent at the university, despite a strong student culture of bystander intervention, and a greater awareness of where on campus to report sexual assault and get help.

President Ron Liebowitz called the survey findings regarding sexual harassment and misconduct “disturbing and deeply troubling” in a community message that accompanied the report’s release. “Many of the results remain stubbornly and disappointingly consistent with those from the first campuswide climate survey at Brandeis, conducted in 2015,” he wrote.

In two areas, however, the results show significant gains over the 2015 survey. This time, many more respondents said they intervened when they witnessed some form of sexual misconduct, or racist or homophobic behavior. And more students said they knew where to go on campus to report and get help for sexual assault.

The survey questionnaire was sent via email to all undergraduate and graduate students last March. About 22%, or 1,148 students, responded. Students were asked how frequently, since coming to Brandeis, they have experienced sexual violence, witnessed derogatory comments about aspects of people’s identity, reported sexual misconduct or taken action to protect others. The survey also asked questions about students’ sense of community and trust in the university’s ability to respond to a crisis.

Among undergraduate survey respondents, 10% of men, 21% of women and 36% of gender nonconforming individuals experienced some form of sexual assault, including inappropriate sexual touching, fondling, grabbing or groping. In the 2015 survey, 5% of men, 22% of women and 35% of “trans*/other” respondents said they had been sexually assaulted (gender categories in the survey changed from 2015 to 2019).

In the 2019 survey, 2% of undergraduate men responding and 6% of undergraduate women responding indicated they have been raped since becoming a student at Brandeis. In the 2015 survey, 1% of undergraduate men and 6% of undergraduate women respondents indicated they had been raped. (The response rate from gender nonconforming respondents was so low that, to protect anonymity, the data were not made public.)

Overall, the results are in line with those from similar surveys undertaken around the same time by 33 of Brandeis’ peers in the Association of American Universities.

“Most of the numbers we see in the report are concerning, but I don’t think we are surprised by this information,” says Sarah Berg, director of the Prevention, Advocacy and Resource Center at Brandeis. “Students have been telling the administration their concerns for a while, so we know — independent of this report — that we need to do better.”

Since Berg’s arrival in January 2018 from the University of Colorado Denver, where she worked as the deputy Title IX coordinator of prevention, training and outreach, she has overseen an increase in PARC’s staffing and resources, including the hiring of Vilma Uribe, assistant director of advocacy. The center holds daily drop-in hours in Usdan Student Center, and 20 undergraduate and graduate students with extensive training serve as peer advocates and violence-prevention educators.

PARC can connect students, both in person and online, with law enforcement and medical personnel, and offers confidential consultations and resource guides to sexual assault survivors. Each year, PARC staff make presentations at Orientation and co-facilitate a required online training program for first-years on health, sex and substance misuse. In 2018, PARC gave bystander training to 2,000 community members, thanks to new club leader and varsity sports player requirements established by the Student Union and Brandeis Athletics.

“Over the past four years, we have placed an emphasis on improving the student orientation experience and bystander training,” Liebowitz wrote in the community message, which was also signed by Provost Lisa Lynch; Mark Brimhall-Vargas, chief diversity officer, and vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion; and Raymond Lu-Ming Ou, vice provost of student affairs. “We believe the increase in interventions and the findings of the survey highlight the value of continuing and enhancing the training the university offers.”

Still, only 13% of undergraduates who experienced some form of sexual assault formally reported it, according to the 2019 survey, although 81% of undergraduate respondents who experienced some form of sexual assault told someone about it.

“The low percentage of students who formally report sexual assault is reflective of numbers we see elsewhere and is not unique to us, but it’s still a problem,” Berg says. “There’s not a lot of faith in the institution that they’ll get the result they want if they report it. This says a lot about their expectations of Brandeis; the police; and the criminal justice system, in general.”

Since the first survey was conducted in 2015, Brandeis has taken numerous steps to create a culture of support, increase student confidence in reporting sexual misconduct and root out sexual violence on campus. In addition to launching PARC, the university created Report It, a website that offers students ways to report a variety of misconduct, including sexual assault and harassment. Campus resources including the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; the University Ombuds; the Gender and Sexuality Center; and the Office of Equal Opportunity have been established or expanded over the past year.

Reducing sexual violence on campus requires a concerted effort by the entire campus community, Liebowitz believes. “The results remind us that preventing sexual assault and supporting survivors requires the focused work of all of us, not just those of us who are designated by job title to grapple with these issues,” he wrote in the community message.

Berg echoes Liebowitz’s call to action. “We have to reframe what we do — our entire community needs to be working together — to enact cultural change around sex, consent and healthy boundaries,” she says. “The administration can’t force this mentality upon the community. We have to choose what we want our community to be.”

The full 2019 Campus Climate Survey Report is available here.