Daring to Be Powerful: Conducting a Campus Climate Survey

By Edwith Theogene
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1 in 4 students have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. You’ve probably heard a number like that, but what I’ve just told you is not a national statistic. It is specific data from Hamline University, where I go to school. After conducting a campus climate survey to examine sexual violence, my research partners and I found that our school is no different than the national standard. And average is not acceptable.

Hamline is a tiny school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it, we’re used to that. But being small doesn’t make us free from sexual violence, and with the survey, we set out to prove that.

My fellow feminist activist (and now best friend) Brynna and I met in a student advocacy organization fighting against sexual violence. She approached me, frustrated by what she’d been learning about the Clery report, and wanting to learn the truth about our community. When the idea of creating a survey on campus was born, we didn’t know how to find the resources to make it a reality. We just knew that there was a gap in knowledge on our campus– that the Clery Act is nowhere near comprehensive, although at the time it was the only standardized tool that college campuses were required to use.

The annual Clery report leaves out significant crimes. These include:

  • rapes that weren’t “forcible”
  • rapes that occurred between students off the physical campus
  • and of course, rapes that were never even brought forth to the administration.

Between 2008 and 2012, zero sexual assaults were reported in Hamline’s Clery data. Over the course of the last 3 years (2012-2015) only 11 sexual assaults were reported in Hamline’s Clery data. There’s no way that’s true.

Looking at Clery data won’t tell you about that time when an act of sexual violence was committed against  a first year in their roommate’s car; or against a sophomore at a house party; or against a junior at their partner’s off-campus apartment; or against a senior who chose not to report it, because they just wanted to graduate and move on. These are theoretical stories, but they are realities for many students on college campuses, and they’re not too far from stories I’ve heard from my peers. We wanted these students to have a voice, too.

We knew their experiences mattered just as much as those reported by Clery. A survey could show that. Eventually, we found immense support and collaboration in a women’s studies professor. Without the women’s studies department and commitment of Dr. Kristin Mapel Bloomberg, our professor, the research couldn’t have happened. Together, we began to create the survey instrument.

We were determined to gather data that gave an honest depiction of Hamline– what students knew about sexual violence policies, if they knew how to report, if they knew anyone who’d been sexually assaulted, and if they’d been sexually assaulted themselves. If so, more questions followed– by whom (friend, partner, stranger, etc.)? Where? Were drugs or alcohol involved? Did you report to administration? All questions were multiple choice, and a respondent could opt out at any point. Within the survey instrument, respondents were directed to supportive resources on campus and in the community. The survey was on SurveyMonkey, making it completely anonymous.

We knew that doing a sexual violence climate survey wouldn’t make us popular in the eyes of the administration. Throughout the process, we’ve been intimidated, contradicted, and invalidated by some of the highest positions of administration. It’s frowned upon to question the integrity of an institution’s community, but to us, it’s much more important that the truth is accessible.

We marketed the survey intensely. Links were plastered all over multiple forms of social media; we made presentations to classes and campus clubs; we hung up posters; emails came out from professors and department heads encouraging students to participate; it was sent to all on-campus students by residential life and eventually, to all undergraduate students by the student congress.

Our response rate was 25% the first year, and even higher the next year. In surveys conducted on Hamline’s campus, that response rate is nearly unheard of. It proved to us that there was a silence that needed to be shattered. That Hamline is only as progressive as what lies beneath it’s liberal surface. That students needed to speak their truths, and this survey opened the door.

Like many small, liberal-arts institutions, our school is proud of its forward-looking stance on social issues. Because of this environment, I believe that many members of our community couldn’t imagine sexual violence happening here. Just last fall, a student posted on “Overheard at Hamline” (a community site), referring to Title IX as “bullshit,” and asking the question “Is there really a whole lot of rape happening at Hamline?” How appropriate, I thought upon reading his rant– we have all the answers to your questions.

This post sparked a mini-movement on social media within Hamline’s networks. Our survey data was shared and discussed, given as evidence that, yes indeed, rape happens here. The outcomes of our survey prove that violence happens at our school, that it can happen anywhere. Denying it helps no one. The only way to make change is to acknowledge what’s happening, stare directly into it’s evil eyes, and make your choice to run or fight.

With our survey, we encouraged our administration not to run. We provided them with data that couldn’t be ignored:

  • Of students who’d been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, 40% experienced sexual violence while attending Hamline.
  • 60% of sexual assaults that occurred during a respondent’s time at Hamline took place off-campus.
  • Students who experienced sexual assault, and responded they were poorly informed about Hamline’s reporting policy, were less likely to report their sexual assault to Hamline officials.

We met with representatives from Residential Life, First-Year Programs, Athletics, and a variety of student organizations. Handouts of the data were distributed all over campus and the internet. We even set up our own website.We have done everything we can to make this knowledge public.

Nothing will change if reality is obscured or denied. We know this. I think every school should produce a campus climate survey, in order to know what work needs to be done. I’m not the only one who sees it this way– it was a recommendation from the White House , and there are even very accessible tools on how to produce a campus climate survey on their website .

The further Brynna and I have gotten into this work, what’s really stood out is the immense support we’ve had behind us. There were so many people on campus ready and willing to contribute however they could. To me, this is what defines our present moment in the fight against sexual violence: the problem is at epidemic levels, but if a few people push hard to make change, there is a critical mass that will back them up.

You can be the one to push for change. You don’t have to be an expert, you just have to believe in yourself and find the right resources. In the words of Audre Lorde, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

If you decide to conduct a climate survey on your campus, know this:

  • It will be work
  • You will be met with resentment from some, hesitation from others, and full support from many
  • You will be inspired by your peers’ bravery to respond to some of your difficult questions
  • You will likely be frustrated by your findings
  • You will be motivated to make change, and with your data in hand, you will know how
By Edwith Theogene

Edwith is an intersectional social justice activist and advocate passionate about issues that impact women and communities of color. She is a Washington D.C. based South Florida Native who loves people, quotes, coffee, and pop culture, especially 90’s tv shows.

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