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Credit: Frederick Mozzy , Courtesy of Frederick Mozzy/Creative Commons

As Penn Law School faculty members question the fairness of the new procedures for managing sexual assault complaints, researchers and educators from across the country continue to criticize the sexual violence campus climate survey that Penn will administer in the spring.

After Penn signed on to participate in a sexual assault survey run by the Association of American Universities last month, a group of experts met in Madison, Wis. last week to draft an alternative survey to help universities assess sexual violence on campus.

“Our goal is for the entire process to be transparent and scientifically sound, and that is not the impression we got from the AAU survey,” said Jennifer Freyd, a University of Oregon psychology professor who co-wrote critical letters of the AAU survey and participated in the summit.

Earlier this week, about one fourth of Penn Law faculty members wrote a critical letter in response to Penn’s new policy for investigating and adjudicating complaints of sexual assault. In addition to weakening the standards for determining that a sexual assault incident has occurred, the new procedures fail to give the accused proper legal protection, according to the authors of the letter.

Noting the letter was signed by only 16 of the 64 full-time members of the Penn Law faculty, Penn’s Director of Media Relations Ronald Ozio sent the following email statement in response to the criticism.

“In considering the appropriate process for resolving complaints of sexual assault against students who are members of our community, we consulted broadly with members of our community — including the Law School faculty, and closely reviewed federal regulations and guidance. We developed a process that we believe to be fair and balanced, that will both provide a sensitive and effective process for those wishing to make a complaint, while actively protecting the rights of the accused.”

Though the AAU survey was declined by over two dozen universities, Penn has decided to administer the $85,000 survey, which will anonymously question students about their sexual violence experiences and their knowledge of campus resources. Building off critiques of the AAU survey’s transparency and scientific merit, the meeting in Madison — called the Madison Summit for Campus Climate and Sexual Misconduct — provided a forum for researchers, educators and student affairs and Title IX administrators to collaborate on the development of a free, open-source survey centered on scientific approaches and accessibility.

“We’re creating a survey that uses well-established, reliable scientific measures that have been proven valid from literature and research, in contrast to other campus climate surveys that do not have people with particular expertise in these types of sexual violence and victimization,” said Lilia Cortina, a University of Michigan psychology and women’s studies professor, who attended the Madison Summit.

The AAU survey continues to be critiqued for its short development timeline, its nontransparent peer review process and its design of publishing only aggregate results, according to Freyd. But Penn is confident the AAU survey will benefit its understanding and management of sexual violence on campus, especially as AAU has incorporated feedback and suggestions from the 28 participating schools including Penn, said Joann Mitchell, Penn’s vice president of institutional affairs.

“There has been much dialogue between AAU and the participating schools, as a team of representatives from the colleges and universities are providing ongoing input to the survey process,” Mitchell said. “We look forward to being able to benchmark against other institutions in the survey since we will be able to compare our results to the aggregate data and see where we are being effective and where we can improve.”

Ann Speicher, AAU’s associate vice president for public affairs, emphasized that the survey has improved since responding to administrator and student focus groups, as well as from hiring nationally recognized experts on sexual assault.

“AAU and Westat [the hired research firm] made significant changes based on follow-up discussions and months of additional deliberations, and the survey instrument has been vetted with the AAU survey team and Westat experts,” Speicher said. “We expect that the aggregate data and analysis will shed new light on the incidence and prevalence of sexual assault and misconduct [...] and will provide a larger, more complete picture of the many issues involved in addressing this critical and complex issue.”

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