Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey Must More Than Double Response Rate to Match 2015 Participation


Harvard's sexual misconduct climate survey, which is entering its third week, has received a response rate of more than 20 percent — already almost half of the survey’s total response rate in 2015.

The 2019 Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct marks the second time the Association of American Universities and Westat have conducted the survey, four years after its first edition in 2015. This year, Harvard is one of 33 institutions participating.

In 2015, Harvard had the highest response rate of any participating institution on the survey, with 53 percent of students filling out the questionnaire. This year, the highest response rate reported so far among participating institutions is 44 percent. More than 2,000 students completed the survey at Harvard the first day, and it closes April 30.

University Title IX Officer Nicole M. Merhill said Harvard took advantage of every opportunity to customize questions for the 2019 survey after hearing feedback on the 2015 iteration. Unlike last time, universities had the opportunity to opt into up to ten free response questions available to all schools, and to insert a small number of unique interspersed questions into the 2019 survey.


Harvard opted into all ten free response options. For the interspersed questions, Merhill said she and her colleagues did their best to take students’ past comments into account. In the University’s recently conducted Pulse survey, for example, some students said they were concerned about questions regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. For the AAU survey, Harvard added a question with more flexible characterizations of gender and sexuality.

“It ended up working out really well,” Merhill said. “I think we got to a better place than the original core question on the survey.”

Harvard also added a question about students’ locations immediately prior to incidents of sexual assault this year, as well as customizations specific to Harvard’s schools and resources.

Overall, roughly 85 percent of the 2019 survey is identical to the 2015 version, allowing the University to compare results from the two.

The 2019 AAU survey comes amidst a variety of surveys sent out in recent months, including the Pulse campus climate survey. Merhill said that unlike Pulse, the AAU survey is administered solely by Westat, an outside firm. In order to ensure total confidentiality, no one at the University can see which students have completed the survey.

“One of the things that we really were very careful about. . .was that anonymity and confidentiality were absolutely essential when disseminating a survey that asked questions about the most sensitive part of a person's life experience,” Merhill said.

Since the 2015 survey, Harvard’s Title IX Office has grown significantly, both in its full-time staff and number of coordinators. Harvard now has 53 coordinators across all its schools. The Office has also rolled out new mandatory trainings for students, faculty, and staff, and developed bystander intervention trainings.

As the survey heads toward its conclusion, the Title IX Office plans to host a short video contest to encourage students to share why participating matters to them. The Office will also continue to promote the survey across the University via tables at the Science Center and posters around campus.

—Staff writer Simone C. Chu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @simonechu_.

—Staff writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at