Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments

As Chancellor, I bear the ultimate responsibility for creating, and sustaining, an environment that brings out the best in every aspiring scholar, at every UT System institution. I take that responsibility very seriously and very personally.

The issue of sexual assault and sexual misconduct is a difficult one, which I have wrestled with before. During my military career, I was informed that unreported sexual assaults were widespread in one of my commands. I didn’t want to believe it, but I knew I couldn’t dismiss it. I set out to learn as much as I could, and what I learned troubled and astonished me. The problem was far broader and more entrenched than I realized, and many victims, distrustful of the reporting process, were afraid to come forward.

Once we understood the problem, my team and I moved quickly to address it. Our ability to effect positive change started with our willingness to follow the truth, wherever it led, and to shine a light in some dark corners we hadn’t known were there.

That is the guiding philosophy behind the Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments (CLASE) report we released last month – a product of the most in-depth study on sexual assaults and sexual misconduct ever conducted in higher education.

Sexual misconduct, I should note, is an issue the System and all UT institutions have been addressing for some time. In addition to campus-based education, prevention, awareness and support initiatives, in recent years we have instituted some important system-wide programs:

  • The Blueprint for Campus Police is a science-based, victim-centered guide developed by social scientists and law enforcement, for campus police to respond to sexual assault cases at all 14 institutions.
  • Through the Bystander Intervention Initiative, we have enlisted and empowered our students to help keep each other healthy and safe.
  • The CLASE findings will enable us to build on this important work.

While I have been deeply engaged with the initiative from the start, it has been a truly collaborative effort. It began about a year and a half ago when the UT System Board of Regents approved $1.7 million to fund the study, which was conducted by researchers at UT Austin’s School of Social Work.

The study included:

  • online questionnaires for students,
  • surveys and focus groups of faculty, staff and campus law enforcement; and
  • a 4-year cohort study of entering freshman to identify the psychological and economic impact of sexual violence.

I want to thank all of the individual campus teams who participated, as well as their presidents who have also been champions of this effort.

I must also recognize and thank the principal investigator for this initiative, Dr. Noel Busch-Armendariz, Associate Vice President for Research at UT Austin, director of UT Austin’s Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault and a distinguished professor at UT Austin’s School of Social Work. The work and dedication Noel and her team have committed to this study is nothing short of astounding.

Thanks also to Dr. Wanda Mercer, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at UT System, who has lived and breathed this study nearly as much as Noel and her team. Dr. Mercer’s background has primarily been on campuses, working directly with students, and I know how deeply important it is to her that we create the best possible environment for our students to learn, grow and complete their education.

Perhaps most of all, I want to thank the more than 28,000 students across UT institutions who stepped up – answering some very difficult questions – to help make their campuses safer.

Key findings of the CLASE survey, which were included in a UT System press release, include the following. I’ll start with some positive news:

  • The vast majority of our students – including those who have, and those who have not been victims of unwanted sexual contact or harassment – reported feeling safe on their campus.
  • At academic institutions, 76 percent of victims and 80 percent of non-victims reported feeling safe on campus.
  • The percentages are even higher at health institutions, where 89 percent of victims and 92 percent of non-victims reported feeling safe on campus.

Now for the bad news, including the prevalence of rape, unwanted sexual contact, and sexual harassment:

  • In terms of unwanted sexual contact, 10 percent of female undergraduate students and 4 percent of male undergraduate students at our academic institutions reported being raped.
  • At health institutions, 4 percent of female students and 2 percent of male students reported being raped.
  • At our academic institutions, 14 percent of students said they experienced sexist gender harassment by a faculty or staff member. At health institutions, the number was 18 percent. 

There are three factors highlighted in the data that must be acknowledged, not to mitigate – and let me repeat, not to mitigate – but to better understand the role we must play in keeping our students safe.

  • First, per our students’ reporting, most instances of unwanted sexual contact occur off campus. For those attending academic institutions, 84 percent reported that it happened off campus, and at our health institutions, 97 percent reported that the incidents occurred off campus.
  • Second, at academic as well as health institutions, the majority of victims of unwanted sexual contact and their perpetrators used alcohol and drugs at the time of victimization.
  • Third, the majority of victims of unwanted sexual contact had either a close relationship or were acquaintances with the perpetrator. 

Another noteworthy question is how do our institutions compare with the rest of the country? The answer is, we are pretty comparable, with most of our results falling within the national averages of other studies on this issue. But there is no comfort for us in being “average” in this respect. The only comfort comes from the fact that the hard data we have collected has yielded insights that will help us drive positive change.

That is just some of what we have learned. We have posted the full report, including an executive summary and an explanation of the study methodology on the UT System’s CLASE website.

This is not the end of our focus on this issue. Across the System, cross-functional teams have come together and are using the CLASE data to develop programs to make campuses safer. And as I mentioned, the CLASE study has a longitudinal component in which Dr. Busch-Armendariz’s team will repeatedly survey a group of 1,200 students 
throughout their college careers.

One outcome we expect from all this is an increase in the number of incidents reported. Counterintuitive as it may seem, that may signal a positive change – that students feel more supported, and more comfortable in sharing.

The CLASE study has taught us some hard truths about life on our campuses. But I have no doubt that, armed with these truths, we can and will do whatever it takes to create a safe learning environment for every student at every one of our institutions.

As I said when the report was made public, we want the UT System to lead in every way that matters – and nothing matters more than this.

Thank you, as always, for reading. I will write again soon.