Provost Etchemendy addresses questions about sexual assault

In recent weeks, a number of questions have been raised about Stanford's implementation of the recommendations of the Provost's Task Force on Sexual Assault Policies and Practices, the results of the campus-wide climate survey, and the handling of sexual assault cases.  Provost John Etchemendy addresses these questions for the Stanford community. 

Sexual assault continues to be a subject of attention and discussion in the Stanford community. What do you make of the discussion?

I would be distressed if it did not continue to be a subject of attention in the community.  As President Hennessy and I said in our letter releasing the results of the campus climate survey, these are vital issues that require the sustained attention and engagement of all members of our campus community.  The climate survey revealed that Stanford students experience sexual assault and sexual misconduct far too frequently on our campus, and this is simply unacceptable.  If we do not focus as a community on this problem, we will not be able to change the attitudes and atmosphere that permit this to occur.


One claim out there is that Stanford has intentionally downplayed what the recent campus climate survey found about the prevalence of sexual assault at Stanford. How do you respond?

This is simply not true.  As we said in our cover letter, the results of the survey were "deeply concerning," including the "unacceptable" findings that 5 percent of undergraduate women had experienced sexual assault and another 33 percent had experienced other forms of sexual misconduct, such as nonconsensual touching.  This behavior, as we said, is deeply and fundamentally inconsistent with our community values.  If readers are concerned that Stanford is trying to downplay the situation on campus, I strongly recommend they read the entire 35-page report on the findings in the Stanford Campus Climate Survey.   It paints a sobering picture, not a rosy one.

It is unfortunate that critics of the survey have focused on a single number that we reported – the rate of sexual assault in the entire population surveyed – as if we did not also report the rate in the relevant subgroups.  To quote from our letter: "About 2 percent of Stanford students surveyed, and just under 5 percent of undergraduate women surveyed, reported experiencing an incident of sexual assault as defined by Stanford policy during their time at Stanford."  The overall rate is also important, to emphasize that sexual assault is experienced by all segments of our student population.  It was not meant to downplay the rate among undergraduate women but rather to ensure that all segments of our community, particularly students with alternative gender identities, had their experiences represented. 


The definition of sexual assault also has been a subject of recent discussion on campus. Some say Stanford's definition of sexual assault is too narrow and was constructed to minimize the problem. How do you respond?

Stanford has long used a definition of sexual assault that parallels the definition used in California law, which requires the use of force, violence, duress or incapacitation.  We think it is important to remain consistent with state law in this terminology.  Stanford policies also absolutely prohibit other abusive or exploitive conduct of a sexual nature – sexual misconduct, domestic and dating violence, stalking and sexual harassment. 

In fact, in 2012, we significantly expanded our definition of prohibited sexual conduct by introducing the requirement of affirmative consent (two years before the State of California) and defining the broader category of sexual misconduct to include such acts as nonconsensual sexual touching, whether or not they involve force or incapacitation.  We felt it was important to prohibit all such conduct, even if it did not qualify as sexual assault under California law.  The point was to expand the categories of prohibited conduct, not to minimize anything. 

It is unfortunate that terminology for this conduct is not standard throughout the country, and I am deeply sorry if our reported categories misled anyone.  It was certainly not the intent, and the suggestion that our definitions were chosen to minimize the problem is simply absurd. 

The important point is that 5 percent of undergraduate women have experienced sexual assault – a sexual act involving force, violence or incapacitation – and another 33 percent  have experienced other forms of sexual misconduct.  Both rates are far too high.  But it is not misleading to report these rates separately, and indeed collapsing them into one rate would be misleading in itself. 


There has also been a lot of discussion about whether the sanction of expulsion should apply to a broader category than just sexual assault.  What is your view on that?

It is important to understand that expulsion is considered the expected sanction for cases of sexual assault, but that in other cases of sexual misconduct, the sanction of expulsion is always a possibility, depending on the circumstances and severity of the offense.  It has in fact been recommended that panels always begin the deliberation about sanction by asking whether expulsion is warranted in the given case.  My belief is that a trained panel that understands the entire circumstances of a case is best able to make those judgments. 


What do you think were the most significant findings of the campus climate survey?

The survey has provided us very deep data that tells us where we should direct future education and support to students.  It was very compelling to us that a majority of our undergraduates, particularly those from diverse racial backgrounds and with alternative gender identities, tell us that they don't think we are providing adequate support for coping with crisis.  We must address this problem immediately.

We are also examining the data to learn who might be at most risk to experience sexual violence on campus, including relationship violence.  We are looking to see whether, for example, freshman women are at a greater risk of assault, whether more misconduct happens in particular living environments, and whether there are locations on campus where students feel particularly unsafe.  We received very important information that explains to us why some students don't want to formally report sexual assault or misconduct to the university.  We need to better understand how we can help students who don't want to come forward. 

With respect to campus climate, it was alarming to us that both men and women report, in very high numbers, that they hear inappropriate comments about women, as well as homophobic remarks – an indication that our campus is not the respectful place that it should be and that we can do more to teach students how disrespectful talk can contribute to a negative or unsafe environment.  On the positive side, we heard from freshmen that our new sexual assault training programs are giving them helpful and important information.


Why did Stanford conduct its own survey instead of participating in the AAU survey?

A number of universities chose not to participate in the AAU survey, including Princeton, MIT, Chicago and Rice.  We partnered with Chicago and Rice on a survey design that was based on the survey used by MIT. 

There were very good reasons for not taking part in the AAU survey.  We were not able to see the AAU survey before having to commit to it – so we had no idea as to its quality and whether it would ask for the information we really need.  We would not have been able to tailor questions to get data important to our campus, and that was a critical priority for us because we wanted to respond to the needs and concerns expressed by our own students.  We were told we would not have access to the raw data, and so could not conduct detailed analyses about subpopulations of the sort that can guide future education and prevention efforts. 

Finally, we were determined to conduct a survey that had a high response rate, but if we participated in the AAU survey we would have been prohibited from providing a large incentive to community members for participation.  We did provide a significant incentive, and our response rate was nearly 60 percent, while the overall response rate to the AAU survey was just 19 percent.  I think we made a wise decision to partner with another group of universities for our survey. 


Some student sexual assault victims say they've had negative experiences with Stanford's Title IX process.  What is your response?

I know it must be very, very difficult to pursue a complaint of sexual assault or sexual misconduct.  We do not want to make the situation any more difficult, and this is in large part the goal of the redesigned adjudication process that we hope to launch in the winter quarter.  We hope students will take the time to read the proposed process and give us comments.  (The full proposal can be found here.)

One of the main complaints we have heard concerns the length of time it sometimes takes to go through the formal adjudication process.  The new process streamlines that by creating a single process for the investigation and adjudication.  We expect this to be a big improvement.  But it is also important to remember that there are many reasons the process can be delayed beyond the 60-day target.  First and foremost, it is important to do justice to all parties involved, so an investigation must always be conducted, and witnesses may not be cooperative or available.  The parties themselves, including the victims, often hesitate to participate.  We must (and do) do our best to move the process along as quickly as possible, but ultimately, we should never do so at the expense of a fair and thorough process.

We have learned a lot by listening to those who have gone through the adjudication process – both victims and respondents – and we hope the redesigned process responds to their needs.


Why has there been so much staff turnover in the Title IX office and the office that provides confidential sexual assault counseling to students?  What is the status of the staffing situation, and is it impacting support to students?

We have maintained adequate staffing in both the Title IX office and the Confidential Support Team.  All students who want and need confidential counseling are receiving that help.  And the Title IX team is moving swiftly to address reported cases and concerns under excellent interim leadership.  

Recruiting permanent employees to these positions is increasingly difficult.  Universities nationwide are finding these jobs to be very hard to fill.  The work is inherently demanding and difficult, and no matter how well you perform your job, you are inevitably criticized, sometimes viciously and personally, by one side or the other.  To top it off, thanks to student privacy laws, you can never defend your actions in any public forum.  It is hard to imagine a more difficult role to take on.  Those who do it do so because they are deeply dedicated to helping students – something that makes the public attacks all the more disheartening.


Some people say Stanford is not doing enough to educate students about this issue. Is Stanford doing all it can to teach students about the prevalence of sexual assault and how they can prevent sexual assault and sexual misconduct from happening?

We have dramatically expanded our educational efforts aimed at prevention in the last several years, and we are seeking to expand and improve those efforts further.  Our top priority is to sponsor efforts that are effective.  The research shows that there are several promising methods – peer education and education that involves role-playing exercises, for instance – and we are working with staff and students to develop such programming in addition to what we have been doing.  We will have succeeded when there is no sexual violence on the Stanford campus, but we have a long way to go.  

A top priority for further analysis of our climate survey is to look at the concerns and experiences of specific student groups, to look at more granular results by school and segments of students, such as the experience of student athletes or professional school students.  What are the different experiences among students?  Are there areas where different programming and training might make a difference?  You will definitely see more activity in the area of prevention.  Ultimately, prevention must be our very highest priority.


What has resulted from your Task Force on Sexual Assault Policies and Practices? Are you satisfied that Stanford is making progress on the subject of sexual assault overall?

There will always be more that we can do, but yes, I believe we are moving in the right direction.  I am grateful to the entire campus community for their engagement on this topic.  Over 9,000 students responded to the climate survey, hundreds of people provided feedback to the task force, and we are hoping that many take the time to give us feedback on the new Title IX process. Scores of university faculty and staff have been involved in these efforts. We can only make progress by working together, and the whole community has been a tremendous help.

It is important to remember that Stanford has been a leader among campuses nationally, and an early adopter, of many new programs and processes designed to make the campus community a safe place for everyone.  We have been actively enhancing our programs for more than five years.  There is a helpful summary of what we've accomplished so far on the web site.  But there are many additional enhancements that we will be making in the coming year.

I welcome all of the activity that has been initiated by our students and the focus on this problem by the ASSU leadership over the past several years.  Productive, open, respectful and truthful conversation around sexual violence will provide the greatest benefit to the campus community in tackling these critically important issues.