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Not just a Nassar problem: new MSU report shows extent of sexual assaults

Kate Wells/Michigan Radio

More than 4,000 undergraduate women were sexually assaulted at Michigan State University during the 2018-2019 academic year, according to a newly releasedcampus survey.


With more than 15,000 students, faculty and staff sharing their experiences with sexual assault, harassment, and their level of trust in the university to handle those issues, the results give school leaders hard numbers about a problem that still plagues the school long after Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison. 



Resisting comparisons with other schools: “It’s hard being a survivor here”


Similar “campus climate” surveys are now a regular, if fraught, part of the public relations cycle for many big schools. The University of Michiganand Ohio State Universityjust released their latest. And the American Association for Universities polled 33 (including U of M and Ohio State) schools this year in its Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, which it first rolled out in 2015 in an effort to assure the public (and an increasingly involved Obama administration) that higher ed was taking this issue seriously.  


But in the wake of a national scandaland a rash of cases involving a former dean, professor, and even its former president,Michigan State University decided it needed to do something different. 


“One of the most important things that we did different than a lot of climate surveys, is that we included faculty and staff,” says Professor Carrie Moylan, who researches campus sexual assault at the MSU School of Social Work. “If you want to think about a university climate, it's not just students who are part of that climate, who shape the climate and who experience the climate.... We also wanted to be sure we actually captured a climate, and not just prevalence [how many people experienced assault.]” 


Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
An MSU student in the student center on campus. Some 15,000 students, faculty and staff responded to the survey.

Yet in terms of the numbers, MSU’s results aren’t all that different from what other big schools are seeing. At MSU, 27% of female undergraduates say they’ve been sexually assaulted since enrolling at the school. That’s up from 25% when the school did the AAU survey in 2015, but it’s still pretty similar to, say, the University of Michigan, where 26% of female undergraduates say the same thing.


And big-picture patterns of who’s most at risk (LGBTQ students, for instance) show up in both MSU’s survey and those from other schools.  


But MSU Psychology Professor Rebecca Campbell says it’s different for Michigan State. 


“Given our history, given the situation with Nassar, it's hard to be a survivor here. It's hard to literally move about campus without seeing reminders and triggers of that specific case and wondering, 'Do I matter? Is my experience important?'"


Rape, battery victims say the incident “wasn’t serious enough” to report


For Campbell, the survey’s results are a brutally honest, universal assessment she can bring to MSU’s new president, Samuel Stanley, and say, “See? This is real.” 


“We have good data about how many this is happening to, who is this is happening to, and who's at disproportionate risk,” she says. “And we have a responsibility to them just as much as we do the survivors in the Nassar case.”


As one of Stanley’s newly minted“presidential advisors on sexual misconduct issues” (the other is MSU Police Lt. Andrea Munford, who was the lead detective in the Nassar case) Campbell knows what she wants to use these results to lobby for: more mental health counselors, so the waitlist isn’t as long. Faster Title IX investigations (something the school has thrown millions of dollarsat achieving, but still struggles with.) More victim advocates, too, to help those who do report.  


And reporting is a big one. While 80% of undergraduate women said hypothetically, they thought MSU would treat them “with dignity and respect” if they experienced sexual misconduct, far fewer are actually reporting it. Of all the undergraduate women who were raped at MSU, only 20% reported it to the school, according to the survey. 


Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
MSU's campus this November.

Of those who didn’t report, many said they “wanted to forget it happened” (60%) or “did not want any action taken” (57%.) And 55% said they “did not think the incident was serious enough.” (That’s not entirely unique to MSU. In the AAU’s survey, when the data from all 33 schools were aggregated, less than 30% of women who had been raped contacted a school program or resource. And when asked why they didn’t report it, 47.4% of women said they didn’t think the incident was “serious enough.”)


This doesn’t surprise Campbell. “Because we still live in a rape culture,” she says. “We still live in a society that creates a hierarchy of rape.” What many still subconsciously consider "real” rape, Campbell says, is when someone grabs you in a dark alley and holds a knife to your throat.


But this survey shows a different story: most sexual assaults at MSU are happening between two students who may already know each other, and are both likely drinking or using drugs. Asked which tactic the perpetrator used, rape victims taking the survey were given three options: “Threatened to hurt you or used force,” “Incapacitated during the incident,” or “Ignored you/Did it without your consent.”


Nearly 88% of victims chose “Ignored you/Did it without your consent.” 


“So then the question becomes, ‘Well, why didn't they fight? Why didn't they scream?’” Campbell says. “Because if you say ‘No,’ and somebody continues to physically dominate you and physically overpower you, the neurobiology of trauma and the way your brain responds to that situation is, you may freeze. You may shut down. You may not be able to yell to fight back, to scream, because your body is recognizing... you are in a very, very threatening situation.” 


But victims know what kind of questions they’re going to encounter if they do report, she says. And if they don’t think they’ll have good answers for the “why didn’t you scream” question, they may be less likely to report.


“And that is something that we're trying to do very differently and very intentionally here at MSU, is really focus on making sure that all members of the campus community who might be receiving disclosures, have a core base understanding of trauma. So when they hear something, they're saying,'Oh, OK, hang on. This is serious. Here's help. Here's resources. Here's what to expect.’”


Nearly 20% of female faculty & staff experience sexual harassment at MSU


Nearly 19% of women faculty and 17.6% of women on staff said they’d experienced work-related sexual harassment, most commonly in the form of someone “referring to people of your gender in insulting terms” or making “inappropriate/offensive comments about appearances or sexual activities.” (Less than 10% of male faculty, and 15% percent of male staff, experienced sexual harassment.)


More than half of those women said it affected their “emotional well-being in a negative way (e/g/ stress, fear)” and 27% of female faculty said they requested a transfer or assignment change, or considered “leaving MSU.” 


Yet they were far less likely to report the harassment, according to the survey. More than a quarter of female faculty told “no one” about the experience, not even friends or colleagues. And among female staff, just 8% took it to human resources. When asked why they didn’t report it, more than half of both female faculty and staff said they didn’t think the incident was serious enough, while more than 40% said they were “concerned about impacts on [their] career or job.” 


What does MSU need to do now? 


More broadly, faculty and staff wrote in comments about their discomfort with the school’s mandatory reporting policies (for instance, saying “the policy discourages students from disclosing their experiences”), even though more than half of them said they felt confident about their abilities to handle such disclosures from students. 


And while comments about the previous acting president, Satish Udpa, were “nearly universally positive,” a number of professionals said there is a “culture of lack of accountability, lack of transparency, unethical behavior and intimidation” that decreased morale and eroded trust in MSU leadership. 


Still, many students, faculty and staff said they felt a “strong sense of connectedness” to the university, and were aware of resources and programs that dealt with sexual violence or harassment at MSU. 


For Campbell, the next step is to ask more questions in a series of public meetings. “They’re opportunities for folks from the campus community to read the report and come talk about it, and give us suggestions and ideas too…. [We’ll ask them] what do you see? What do you think ought to be done differently? And think outside the box to get a lot of different ideas brought to the table and then work through them to figure out, how can we bring these into reality?” 


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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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