UT System to launch the most comprehensive sexual assault study in higher education

AUSTIN — Students returning to class at the University of Texas System’s campuses this fall will be participating in the nation’s most comprehensive study on sexual assaults ever conducted in higher education.

The University of Texas System has funded a $1.7-million multiyear study on sexual assaults, dating violence, stalking and sexual harassment at 13 of its college and medical campuses. The study, to be conducted by researchers at UT Austin’s School of Social Work for the UT System, will range from online questionnaires for students; surveys and focus groups of faculty, staff and campus law enforcement; and a 4-year cohort study of entering freshman to identify the psychological and economic impact of sexual violence.

“When Chancellor William McRaven took office in January, he felt a responsibility to the UT System’s 217,000 students to ensure their campuses are safe, and if they report crimes, they will be supported,” said Wanda Mercer, UT System’s associate vice chancellor for student affairs. “This study is a proactive approach to an important issue. We are not waiting for a high-profile incident to occur before we do it.”

Known as Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments (CLASE), the study will select a sample size of students who reflect the demographics of their institutions to anonymously answer questions about their on-campus sexual violence experiences to help researchers determine the prevalence of such incidents. The survey - which will gather data from self-identified victims - will commence this fall and be repeated two years later.

“The number of sexual assaults reported to college law enforcement is generally the tip of the iceberg,” said Noël Busch-Armendariz, director of UT Austin’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, who will lead the study. “Sexual assault and other forms of intimate and interpersonal violence are among the most underreported of all violent crimes. Determining the prevalence will help understand how many students face these traumatic events on our campuses and offer suggestions on how to respond to victims’ needs.”

Busch-Armendariz, who is also a professor and associate dean for research at UT Austin’s School of Social Work, recently conducted a prevalence study on sexual assault for the state of Texas. Her findings show that 6.3 million adults have been victims of sexual assaults in their lifetime. In 2014, 413,000 Texans experienced sexual assault, while only 9 percent reported the incidents to law enforcement.

In conjunction with the online questionnaires, the UT System will also launch a “deep dive” phase of the study at four of its campuses: UT El Paso, UT Arlington, UT Austin and UT Medical Branch at Galveston. This analysis will use focus groups and surveys to gather data from faculty, staff, law enforcement, administration and student leadership to determine how these crimes are reported, how the university responds, and the policies and procedures that initiate when crimes are reported.

Researchers will also examine the economic cost of intimate and interpersonal violence. Victims may change majors, delay graduation or drop out of school all together, costing them forgone income from a projected career. There are also institutional costs related to prevention and counseling, adjudication and addressing student safety.

In a 2011 study, Busch-Armendariz and Bruce Kellison, associate director of the Bureau for Business Research at UT Austin, determined that sexual assault crimes cost the state of Texas $8 billion annually. The costs related to addressing intimate and interpersonal violence on college campuses, however, are still unknown.

The researchers will interpret the data and refine the methodology in the first two years of the UT System project and eventually expand the deep dive phase to the eight other UT System campuses.

In the final phase of the UT System study, Busch-Armendariz and her team will conduct a 4-year study with a cohort of UT Austin students that will include victims and non-victims.

“The cohort study will help us understand students’ knowledge, attitudes and experiences over their college careers. More than a snapshot, it’s a careful study of college students’ ongoing experiences,” Busch-Armendariz said.

Results from the online questionnaire, the deep dive and cohort study will be used by each participating UT System campus to develop programs, policies and procedures that create a safe learning environment. The study was designed to be customized to each campus’s unique culture and environment.

“Sexual violence at colleges and universities has been a major focus nationally,” Mercer said. “The UT System wants to be a leader in safeguarding our students by understanding and improving our systems, and providing comprehensive and compassionate support network for victims.” 

Other UT System institutions participating in the study include: UT Permian Basin, UT Dallas, UT San Antonio, UT Rio Grande Valley, UT Tyler, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, UT Southwestern Medical Center, UT Health Science Center at Houston and UT MD Anderson Cancer Center.

About The University of Texas System

Educating students, providing care for patients, conducting groundbreaking research and serving the needs of Texans and the nation for more than 130 years, The University of Texas System is one of the largest public university systems in the United States, with nine academic universities, six health institutions and an enrollment of more than 217,000. The UT System confers more than one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees, educates two-thirds of the state’s health care professionals annually and accounts for almost 70 percent of all research funds awarded to public universities in Texas. The UT System has an annual operating budget of $15.6 billion (FY 2015) including $3 billion in sponsored programs funded by federal, state, local and private sources. With about 90,000 employees, the UT System is one of the largest employers in the state.

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