Recently, a group of alumna from Vanderbilt University conducted an informal survey using Survey Monkey to gauge student and alumni opinion about sexual assault on campus. They made the results of this survey into an infographic which generated many hits on Buzzfeed over the past few days. As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, I know the campus is highly aware of an assault that took place over the summer, and accusation of rape culture and a faulty justice system are not new in collegiate communities, including Vanderbilt.
One great thing about the infographic is that it identifies the campus resources that are available (yet in some cases not beneficial) for those affected by sexual assault. Equally importantly, the graphic led to important conversations about rape and consent on campus, and I am glad that my school is now having those conversations. I don’t think anyone can fault the intentions of the alumnae who put this project together; bringing attention to the problem of sexual assault on campus is a worthy goal.
Ultimately, though, the project has some major problems.
The data collection for the survey immediately raised red flags for me. As a student of political science, accurate polling has been beaten into my brain. The survey was sent out through Facebook groups and student organizations, and the data collected only reflected the individuals who chose to respond. This distribution method caused serious self-selection bias in the data. Additionally, the survey did not include a finite definition of sexual assault; survey respondents were left to define sexual assault themselves causing a variation in responses.
The anger and efforts of the alumnae who conducted this survey are also misguided. Vanderbilt is an educational institution, not a justice organization. When Vanderbilt officials learned about the assault, they did not cover it up as many other universities have done, though they had ample opportunity, since the university uncovered the assault from a security tape. Vandy administrators could have easily let the tape sit, unacknowledged, indefinitely. Instead, they reported it to the Nashville Police Department, an entity that has the power of law and is a part of the justice process.
Vanderbilt’s power over the lives of the accused perpetrators of this horrific crime extends only to their involvement with the university; the accused athletes have been suspended and forbidden from campus. What more can Vanderbilt do to satisfy these alumnae in uproar? The school cannot comment on an open case; it cannot presume guilt until it is proven. After removing the offenders from campus, there is nothing more that Vandy could do.
Again, I think the intentions and efforts of the alumnae who led this project were admirable. Getting people talking about sexual assault is absolutely worthwhile. That said, the methods were faulty and the implications misguided. The infographic would have had more positive impact targeting the culture of rape and victim blaming occurring on college campuses across the country rather than pointing fingers at educational institutions.