COLUMBUS, Ohio - Nearly a quarter of undergraduate women surveyed at more than two dozen universities say they experienced unwanted sexual contact sometime during college, according to a report released Monday.
The results of the Association of American Universities Campus Climate Survey come at a time of heightened scrutiny of the nation's colleges and universities and what they are doing to combat sexual assault. Just last week, Vice President Joe Biden visited Ohio State University and highlighted several new initiatives, including mandatory sexual violence awareness training for the school's freshmen beginning next year.
The survey was sent this spring to nearly 780,000 students at the association's member colleges, plus one additional university. About 150,000 participated in the online questionnaire. Researchers said results could be biased slightly upwards because students who ignored the survey may have been less likely to report victimization.
The results were generally in line with past surveys on sexual assault and misconduct on college campuses - and confirmed that alcohol and drugs are important risk factors.
"How many surveys will it take before we act with the urgency these crimes demand?" said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, who is pushing for passage of a bill that would address how sexual assault cases are handled on campus and the resources available to help students.
Researchers cautioned against generalizations from the data, partly because experiences of different students and at different schools could vary widely. It was not a representative sample of all the nation's colleges and universities.
Some students attended schools that have recently grappled with reports of sexual assaults or misconduct, including the University of Virginia, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Ohio State.
University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan has said that a widely discredited and later retracted Rolling Stone magazine story about a gang-rape at a fraternity house harmed efforts to fight sexual violence and tarred the school's reputation. Hazing that included excessive underage drinking and sexualized conduct - though none of it aimed at females - prompted the University of Wisconsin-Madison to terminate a fraternity chapter earlier this year. And Ohio State fired its marching band director last year after an internal investigation turned up a "sexualized culture" of rituals and traditions inside the celebrated organization.
The Obama administration has taken steps to push colleges to better tackle the problem of sexual assault, including releasing the names of 55 colleges and universities last year that were facing Title IX investigations for their handling of such cases. A settlement in one of those cases, between UVa and the U.S. Department of Education, was announced Monday. It included several changes the university will make to the handling of sexual assault cases.
Other participating schools said survey results also would bolster their ongoing efforts. Dartmouth said Monday it will form a committee of students, faculty and staff to analyze the data, as well as conduct its own attitudes survey starting in October.
Gregory Fenves, president of The University of Texas at Austin, said, "It is essential that we foster a campus that does not tolerate sexual assaults while strongly encouraging victims to come forward and report incidents."
Overall, 23 percent of undergraduate women at the participating universities said they had been physically forced - or threatened with force - into nonconsensual sexual contact or incapacitated when it happened. That included activities ranging from sexual touching or kissing to penetration. For undergraduate men, the percentage was 5 percent.
The survey found freshman women appeared to be at greater risk than older students for these forced or incapacitated encounters. About 17 percent of freshman females reported sexual contact that was forced or while incapacitated; for senior-year students, the percentage had dropped to 11 percent.
The survey provided a rare glimpse into the experiences of the small percentage of students who are transgender or who don't identify as either male or female. Undergraduates in that category reported the highest rate of the most serious nonconsensual acts.
"Our universities are working to ensure their campuses are safe places for students," AAU President Hunter Rawlings said in a statement. "The primary goal of the survey is to help them better understand the experiences and attitudes of their students with respect to this challenge."
The study found that only a relatively small percentage of serious incidents was reported to the university or another group, including law enforcement. Across the institutions, it ranged from 5 percent to 25 percent.
The most common reason cited by students for not reporting an incident was that they didn't consider it serious enough. Others said they were embarrassed or ashamed or "did not think anything would be done about it."
Those who chose to report the incidents, however, said they had generally favorable experiences. Well over half said their experience with the organization that handled the report was very good or excellent.
Twenty-six participating institutions were AAU member research universities: Brown; California Institute of Technology; Case Western Reserve; Columbia; Cornell; Harvard; Yale; Iowa State; Michigan State; Ohio State; Purdue; Texas A&M; and the universities of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota-Twin Cities, Missouri-Columbia, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Southern California, Texas at Austin, Virginia, Wisconsin-Madison and Washington University in St. Louis. One nonmember, Dartmouth College, also participated.