MIT announces steps intended to minimize unwanted sexual behavior

President Reif: “Sexual assault violates our core MIT values. It has no place here.”


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Kimberly Allen
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After surveying all of its undergraduate and graduate students, MIT has concluded that the incidence of sexual assault on its campus is not unlike that found by research on the nation’s residential campuses as a whole, and has announced it will take seven initial steps to minimize unwanted sexual behavior at MIT.

President L. Rafael Reif announced the news today in an email to the MIT community. The Institute’s actions, and some of the survey’s findings, were detailed in an accompanying letter and report from Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, who led the effort to survey the MIT community about sexual assault and unwanted sexual behavior at MIT.

“I am disturbed by the extent and nature of the problem reflected in the survey results,” Reif wrote. “As a community, we depend on mutual respect and trust. Sexual assault violates our core MIT values. It has no place here. I am confident that, with this shared understanding and armed with this new data, the MIT community will find a path to significant positive change.”

The Institute-wide steps announced today include increasing staffing to respond to those who experience sexual assault; finding new ways to let students know where to turn for help; removing barriers to reporting and addressing complaints by revamping procedures and processes; launching a Sexual Assault Education and Prevention Task Force; and increasing education for students, especially through peer-to-peer programs, on bystander intervention and on the connection between alcohol, drugs, and unwanted sexual behavior.

“Overall, the results suggest that the problem of sexual assault in our community is comparable to that reported on other residential campuses,” Barnhart wrote in her letter. “These are painful facts, and we must take action.”

“Breaking the silence”

In February, Reif asked Barnhart to explore how sexual assault affects the MIT community. His request followed an anonymous account in The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper, by a young alumna who described a sexual assault while she was an undergraduate. In a Feb. 7 email to the MIT community, Reif praised the anonymous alumna for “breaking the silence for all rape victims in our community.”

The resulting survey was emailed by Barnhart to all 10,831 undergraduate and graduate students at MIT on April 27 — two days before a White House task force called on all of the nation’s colleges and universities to survey their students on these matters. The survey, which was the first of its kind at MIT, generated responses from 3,844 students, or 35 percent of those queried.

Specific survey findings that Barnhart cited in her letter include the following:

  • The national conversation on campus sexual assaults has focused on the widely cited statistic that about 19 percent of undergraduate women experience rape or sexual assault under conditions of force, threat of physical harm, or incapacitation. By that definition, for those undergraduate women who responded to MIT’s survey, the Institute’s comparable figure is nearly 17 percent.
  • In total, 539 indicated that they had experienced any kind of sexual misconduct while at MIT, ranging from unwelcome verbal sexual conduct to rape; these acts were usually committed on campus by someone they knew. Of those 539 individuals, 284 were undergraduate women.
  • These behaviors often occur when students are in vulnerable states: Of the 539 students who indicated that they had experienced such behavior at MIT, close to half said that someone took advantage of them while they were drunk, high, asleep, or otherwise impaired.

The survey’s response rate ranged from 30 percent of male graduate students to 46 percent of female undergraduates. In her letter, Barnhart cautioned that because the survey was not a random sample, was voluntary, and was focused on sexual assault, the results might reflect a degree of self-selection. Because MIT cannot accurately tell how such self-selection might have altered the results, these numbers should not be used to generalize about the prevalence of unwanted sexual behavior in the lives of all MIT students.

Seven steps

“MIT is a community of problem solvers,” Barnhart wrote in her letter. “As we have demonstrated in the past, we are not afraid of self-examination and are very good at learning from data and facts, even unpleasant ones. Ultimately, we will arrive at a serious solution only if we draw on ideas generated by the MIT community at large.”

Barnhart said that she will soon host a community forum to discuss the initial survey results and next steps. She also invited members of the MIT community to send ideas and comments to stop-assault@mit.edu.

In her letter, Barnhart added that MIT will take, or has already taken, the following seven steps based on what is already known:

1. Increasing staff to respond to those who experience sexual assault, and finding new ways to let students know where they can turn for help.

Students who reported using MIT’s existing confidential resources, such as the Violence Prevention and Response (VPR) team, were extremely positive about their experiences. But many survey respondents were unaware of the range of services and options available, a finding that was especially true for graduate students. Accordingly, MIT will expand outreach and education beyond student living groups and clubs to reach students in academic departments and labs, and will increase the number of staff members who provide both education and advocacy services.

2. Removing barriers that may prevent people from seeking help by revamping procedures for reporting complaints and processes for addressing reported complaints.

Of those students who indicated that they had experienced unwanted sexual behavior, only 5 percent reported their experience through official MIT channels. To help reduce the barriers to reporting, MIT has already clarified policies and procedures; updated the website dedicated to sexual assault and misconduct; hired new staff; increased training of the Committee on Discipline; made significant changes to the Committee on Discipline processes for handling sexual misconduct cases; and charged a task force that will soon recommend additional changes to the disciplinary process.

3. Building additional options for peer involvement in education.

Among survey respondents who experienced unwanted sexual behavior, 63 percent told someone about it; more than 90 percent of these students sought support from a friend. Building on this natural impulse, MIT will work with a group of students to develop peer-to-peer programs, in the tradition of other successful peer-based efforts at MIT.

4. Launching a Sexual Assault Education and Prevention Task Force.

Composed of students, staff, and faculty, this task force will review current education and prevention outreach efforts to identify gaps; explore best practices at other institutions; develop recommendations to address gaps; and propose a plan for their implementation.

5. Doing more to teach students about effective bystander intervention.

Survey respondents were nearly unanimous in agreeing that most MIT students would respect someone who took steps to prevent a sexual assault; more than 80 percent stated that they “always or usually” took at least one concrete step to protect their friends. These findings, Barnhart wrote, suggest progress in the Institute’s recent efforts to make sure that all MIT students are trained in the skills of bystander intervention. But still, the chancellor said, more can be done to encourage community members to routinely, systematically take responsibility for each other.

6. Helping students understand and handle the complex, sometimes unpredictable psychological impact of unwanted sexual experiences.

The survey asked students whether they had been sexually assaulted or raped; it then asked them if they had experienced a range of specific unwanted sexual behaviors. The responses indicated that many students who had experienced behaviors that would meet a legal definition of sexual assault or rape did not define the experience in those terms themselves. Students indicated a range of factors that might account for these differences, including: that they felt partially responsible, that the incident wasn’t violent, that they had been drinking, or that the other person involved was an acquaintance or a friend. Barnhart wrote that MIT must help students understand that harm can result from unwanted sexual encounters, whether or not they think harm was intended, so it is right to ask for help.

7. Stepping up education of links between alcohol, drugs, and sexual assault.

Of the survey respondents who indicated they had experienced unwanted sexual behavior, nearly half stated they had been taken advantage of when “too drunk, high, asleep, or out of it.” MIT therefore plans to step up existing education efforts in this area. Several on-campus residence halls have launched student-organized training sessions for residents, and the Panhellenic Association is developing a risk certification program on sexual assault, substance abuse, mental health, bystander intervention, and policy awareness for MIT sororities. MIT’s Interfraternity Council has also taken up this responsibility, implementing a program to educate students about sexual assault; the role that alcohol and drugs can play; the power of bystanders to help prevent sexual assault; and ways to help a friend who has been assaulted. By the end of this semester, more than one-third of MIT’s undergraduate men will have completed some or all of this training. Drawing on lessons from this program, Barnhart wrote, MIT will roll out similar programs in dormitories and with other student groups.

“Chancellor Barnhart and the dedicated staff and students working with her have given us a running start,” Reif wrote in his letter to the community. “From conducting listening sessions and the survey, to releasing their findings, to taking immediate actions, they have undertaken my charge to them with intelligence, speed, frankness, and an instinct to seek the facts. I am very grateful for the important work they have done so far, and I trust that we will all come together now to find the best ways to solve this problem for our community.”


Topics: Students, MIT Administration, President L. Rafael Reif, Community, Campus services, MIT Medical, Health, Student life

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