To Prevent Sexual Assault, Expand How We Assess “Campus Climate”
By Carrie A. Moylan, McKenzie Javorka, Megan K. Maas, Elizabeth Meier & Heather L. McCauley | September 7, 2021
In July, the Department of Education released a new Q&A to help campuses implement Title IX regulations, signaling how the Biden administration will interpret the law that protects equal access to education regardless of gender, particularly as it pertains to sexual violence. While most of the regulatory focus has been on how campuses investigate and adjudicate sexual violence, one of the less controversial recommendations from Obama-era Department of Education guidance was that college campuses should conduct routine, institutionally-specific climate surveys to assess sexual assault related knowledge, attitudes, and experiences among students.
Though not federally mandated, hundreds of campuses have conducted at least one climate survey, multiple free survey instruments exist for campus use, and mountains of data about college students’ experiences have been collected, analyzed, and sometimes even used to inform campus decisions about policy and programming. But despite broad adoption, the utility of climate surveys has been hampered by the lack of a clear definition of climate and why climate matters when it comes to sexual violence.
Despite broad adoption, the utility of climate surveys has been hampered by the lack of a clear definition of climate and why climate matters when it comes to sexual violence.
The result is survey data that focus narrowly on incidents of sexual violence—what we would call behavioral climate—without understanding how the broader climate may either enable or discourage violence. This narrow focus then directs campuses to individualized solutions and obscures the potential of interventions that target structural and community level factors. We need a more comprehensive definition of climate in order to fully understand how and why sexual violence is manifesting on campuses, and ultimately to reduce both the incidence and harm caused by sexual violence.
Broadening Our View to Better Capture Campus Climate
In our recent publication, we offer a definition of climate that incorporates five dimensions, each of which points us to additional aspects of climate that could be assessed by campuses.
Behavioral climate refers to the concrete actions, behaviors, and experiences that occur in the broad campus community. Current climate surveys assess some aspects of behavioral climate really well, such as asking about experiences of sexual assault among students (and less frequently among faculty and staff). Another useful area to explore would be whether survivors sought supportive services or reported their experiences to school officials, as the choice to make a report or seek services is a concrete behavior informed by institutional or community level factors. In addition, assessing acts of discrimination like gender microaggressions and incivility on campus would provide a more detailed picture of the behavioral climate by illuminating the interconnections between different forms of bias, violence, and harassment.
Perceived climate is made up of individuals’ attitudes and perceptions about the campus and its members. Current climate surveys, for example, often ask about student perceptions of how well their campus handles sexual violence and their knowledge of policies and resources. But a deeper assessment of perceived climate could explore perceptions of campus inclusivity, as research has linked perceived sexism, inclusivity, and discrimination with rates of sexual harassment and violence.
When marginalized students are subjected to bias or harassment (behavioral climate) and discriminatory attitudes are normalized (perceived climate), they face higher risks of sexual violence and are less likely to seek assistance from the university. Climate surveys that asses for a wider range of perceptions can thus suggest more effective tools for campus programs that seek to eliminate root causes of violence.
Psychological or Felt Climate
While perceived climate refers to the thoughts and beliefs that individuals hold about others and the collective workings of their institutions, psychological or felt climate refers to the emotional or affective experience of being part of a campus community. It is, therefore, more inward-focused. Some surveys ask about a student’s sense of belonging, as those who feel more connected to their school may be more likely to seek help or engage in bystander intervention to prevent sexual assault situations among peers.
Expanding assessment of felt climate to include psychological safety, or one’s sense that they can take risks without being punished, could provide useful information to track the effectiveness of bystander intervention programs. Assessing school/job satisfaction and intent to leave could help campuses monitor the deleterious impact of sexual violence on survivors in the hopes of preserving survivors’ access to their education.
Structural climate refers to the policies, resources, and even the demographic make-up of a campus. While current climate surveys often ask about students’ knowledge about policies, most do not explicitly attend to the structural climate itself. Assessing structural climate can look like conducting a scan of available resources, examining policies that are in place and the procedures that dictate how policies are implemented. For example, a resource scan might reveal that a campus lacks clear sanctioning guidelines, leading to uneven enforcement of policies. College administrators may be particularly amenable to suggestions for structural climate intervention as resources and policies provide concrete, visible evidence of efforts to improve climate.
Historical climate refers to the accumulated history of events that shape how the climate is experienced currently. For example, our own campus, Michigan State University, is still reverberating from the events surrounding the revelation of the sexual abuse of hundreds of young athletes by a university-employed doctor and the university’s missteps in responding to its institutional failures. These events have shaped how survivors think about the university and their trust in the institution. Thus, any discussion of our campus climate must grapple with these historic failures.
Historical climate, which also includes histories of discrimination and inclusion at the institution, can be incorporated into interpretation of changes in survey results over time. Alternately, historical climate could be assessed separately from survey results, for example through construction of a historical timeline of anti-sexual violence activism on campus.
From Better Data to Prevention
There have been calls to mandate campus climate surveys related to sexual violence and some states, including New York, have state legislation requiring climate surveys. While we are not necessarily advocating for a nationwide climate survey mandate or a standardized climate survey across institutions, we do encourage institutions, researchers, and policymakers to consider whether and how climate surveys are producing the kind of data we need to truly end campus sexual assault and other forms of victimization.
And while more thorough assessment of these five dimensions may increase the burden of survey efforts, creative strategies can balance comprehensiveness with survey fatigue. For example, surveys can be structured in a way that increases the total number of questions but only asks each participant a subset of the total questions. Using other non-survey methods in addition to surveys would also enable a more thorough exploration of climate, such as conducting a resource audit to assess the structural climate.
Ultimately, if our surveys focus narrowly on individual incidents of violence, we might miss opportunities to understand how and why campuses create risk for students by virtue of climate or culture.
Ultimately, if our surveys focus narrowly on individual incidents of violence, we might miss opportunities to understand how and why campuses create risk for students by virtue of climate or culture. A broader, more comprehensive definition challenges us to measure and assess climate in a way that captures the complex inter-relations of history, institutional structure, community perceptions, and behavior. And when we see the ways that institutions can either enable or discourage sexual violence, we expand the opportunities for prevention.
Carrie A. Moylan is an associate professor of social work, Megan K. Maas is an assistant professor in human development & family studies, and Heather L. McCauley is an assistant professor of social work at Michigan State University. McKenzie Javorka is a PhD student in ecological community psychology and Elizabeth Meier is a PhD student in social work at Michigan State University.