A recent report by the Student-Alumni Committee on Institutional Security Policy reveals that Harvard University had the highest rate of violent crime among top urban institutions in the years 2001-2002. Columbia was declared the safest institution, with Penn lagging behind several other top-tier schools.
The Boston-based group based its findings on violent crimes, which it defined as all murders, forcible sex offenses, robberies and armed assaults that occurred on or just off campus. They were concerned solely with crimes in which students were the victims.
The committee used data provided by the U.S. Department of Education to compare Harvard with Columbia University, Penn, the University of Chicago, University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University.
"Relative to Harvard, the rate of violent crime per student appears to be about 50 percent lower at Penn," SACISP concluded on its Web site.
James Herms, co-founder of the committee, was critical of Harvard's lax attitude towards the security of its students. He repeatedly emphasized the importance of visible and plentiful police patrols.
"Columbia has a highly evolved security system -- the police are out there patrolling," he said. "In Harvard, they're hanging about."
Herms acknowledged that students should follow certain safety guidelines, such as not walking alone late at night. But he insisted that the legal responsibility for students' safety lies with the university.
"If Penn [is] a more dangerous place than Columbia, it has to have more security," he said.
While both are urban institutions, Columbia has some notable geographic differences to Penn that could affect crime rates. Columbia's primary campus area is closed off by gates, effectively isolating it from the surrounding city. In contrast, Penn's campus is entirely open.
Herms said safety administrators should consider controlling access to campus in a similar fashion to Columbia.
"That's part of making students safer," he said. Universities should do "whatever it takes" to protect students.
Education always plays an important role in increasing student safety. According to Herms, campuses will naturally attract criminals hoping to prey on well-to-do college students, so people should try to quickly learn which are the more dangerous areas around campus.
"Having a gentrified neighborhood can be just as bad as having a neighborhood that's totally demoralized," Herms said.
Howard Clery -- co-founder of Security on Campus, a national organization concerned with crime on campus -- said students were actually the greatest perpetrators of campus crime.
"Most of crime is student on student," he said. "Seventy percent is alcohol fueled."
Clery went on to say that "25 percent of female students will experience sexual crime of some kind, though only 5 percent will report it."
The U.S. Department of Justice has released a report entitled the Sexual Victimization of College Women in December 2000 confirming these statistics.