Why didn’t Princeton take the AAU Survey on Sexual Assault?

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Last week, President Eisgruber emailed the student body with results of the We Speak survey on sexual misconduct. More than a quarter of undergraduate women reported nonconsensual sexual contact or an attempt.

“As is the case at other universities that recently released the results of similar surveys, the findings at Princeton are heartbreaking,” Eisgruber wrote.

Many of the sexual assault numbers coming in from other Universities are from one large survey, conducted by the American Association of Universities last spring. The survey included 27 Universities, and more than 150,00 students.

Every Ivy participated, except Princeton.

In conducting a separate survey, confined to its campus and administered by the University, Princeton made it difficult to compare its sexual assault numbers with other schools.

The AAU is a well-regarded nonprofit organization of 62 top American and Canadian universities, which conducts research on issues relevant to those schools. Princeton joined the association in 1900.

The sexual misconduct survey was conducted by private social science research firm Westat, and the team that designed it was led by a North Carolina researcher.

We asked Princeton why it chose to conduct its own survey.

“Princeton designed the survey for the specific needs of the Princeton community,” University spokesman Martin Mbugua wrote in an email response. He also said that the survey asked “specific questions with specific definitions matching those used in our policies.”

The We Speak survey makes clear that it is difficult to compare to other results. The statement below stands out – it’s the only bolded statement in the survey’s executive summary:

“The prevalence estimates reported here are specific to this study and are not directly comparable to other studies reported by other universities and in the media.”

bolded section

It’s followed by another qualification:

“However, our findings are generally consistent with those being reported elsewhere.”

In its executive summary, the AAU survey makes clear that the opportunity to compare results from different universities is a major advantage. In fact, it is one of the reasons they conducted such a large study.

From the executive summary of the AAU survey:

“To date, comparisons across surveys have been problematic because of different methodologies and different definitions. The AAU study is one of the first to implement a uniform methodology across multiple [Institutes of Higher Education] and to produce statistically reliable estimates for each IHE.”

Princeton’s survey did have a much higher response rate than most of the schools in the AAU survey. 52% of Princeton’s undergraduate and graduate students completed at least one question in the survey.

The total sample size of the AAU survey was 780,000 students, with 150,000 responding, a rate of about 19%.

Participation was a high priority in both studies, as some have raised concerns about response bias in surveys regarding sexual assault.

Some schools in the AAU survey had response rates similar to Princeton. More than 53% of Harvard students took the survey, and almost 52% of Yale students took it.

One key difference in the two surveys we found is the time frame that the survey considers.

The AAU survey asked about experiences of sexual misconduct during a student’s time in college, as well as experiences during the current academic year; Princeton’s survey asked only about the current year.

For example, 28% of Yale undergraduate women reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact that would be considered assault under most criminal standards since starting college. Princeton’s results offer no such numbers regarding students’ experience over multiple years.

Because of the differences in definitions and time frames, it’s difficult to make meaningful comparisons between the surveys, but here’s one effort:

In the year the survey was conducted, 14% of Yale undergraduate women reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact.

22% of Princeton undergraduate women reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact in the past year, according to the We Speak survey. The definitions used for the two numbers appear to match up, but as the introduction to the survey made clear, no direct comparison can be drawn.

From the We Speak report.

From the We Speak report.

For Harvard’s number, it’s much easier. 12.5% of undergraduate women experienced nonconsensual sexual contact in that year at Harvard, the same statistic referenced above for Yale.

And one last thing –

Princeton’s homepage story on the survey leads with an encouraging figure – “a sizable majority knows where to go on campus for help following an incident of nonconsensual sexual contact” (!).

The 20% of Princeton students that experienced an incident of sexual misconduct in the past year didn’t show up until paragraph five.

This is the first installment of a series of Press Club investigations into the We Speak survey. Stay tuned.

One thought on “Why didn’t Princeton take the AAU Survey on Sexual Assault?

  • I am a medical doctor class of ’62 experienced in social survey methodology. The Princeton “We Speak” survey methodology does not meet standards of present day survey science. The survey had no on-campus survey pretest, no recorded focus group evaluation, and no proper assessment of non-responders (no analysis by age, gender, ethnic group, academic performance, socio-economic indicators, club membership etc.) who are 48% of the student body. The authors appear to have no professional training in survey methods and there was apparently no statistician on the survey analysis team. In November 2014 the university received a title IX violation concerning insufficient sexual assault handling. It is of concern that by avoiding the AAU survey the university avoided independent outside assessment.

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