More than one in four undergraduate women nationwide have been sexually assaulted by force or couldn’t give their consent because they were incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs, even as campuses stepped up their efforts to curb sexual misconduct, a new survey has found.
The survey of 33 leading colleges and universities, including three in the Boston area, found that nearly 26 percent of undergraduate women and 10 percent of female graduate students have experienced unwanted kissing, groping, or penetration since they arrived on campus.
The report, released by the Association of American Universities on Tuesday and billed as the largest survey of its kind, involved 181,750 students who responded to questions earlier this year.
The experience of female students at Harvard University and Boston University, which participated in the survey, mirrored the national average, with about 24 percent of undergraduates reporting that they had been sexually assaulted.
At MIT, 18.4 percent of female undergraduates reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact.
The share of female graduate students reporting sexual assault at MIT (8.3 percent), Harvard (8 percent), and BU (7.4 percent) were below the overall national rate.
The report comes at a crucial moment for colleges and universities nationwide. Many are grappling with how they handled sexual misconduct allegations in the past and anger from students and alumni that complaints were brushed aside.
Meanwhile, US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has pushed to reverse some of the sexual assault guidelines for college campuses implemented by the Obama administration, arguing that they went too far and have failed to ensure that those accused of misconduct are treated fairly.
The 2019 Association of American Universities survey found that students are increasingly aware of resources available to victims of sexual assault and misconduct as schools have beefed up their educational efforts. But instances of sexual assault remain widespread and on the rise, said Mary Sue Coleman, the association’s president.
“The disturbing news from this year’s survey is that sexual assault and misconduct remain far too prevalent among students at all levels of study,” Coleman said in a statement.
Local university officials expressed alarm over the numbers.
“The data offer a stark portrayal of a persistent problem that weakens the fabric of our community,” MIT president L. Rafael Reif wrote in a message to the university community. MIT officials called for “soul searching” in addressing sexual assault and harassment.
This year was the first time that BU and MIT students participated in the national survey.
Harvard was part of a smaller cohort of institutions that completed a similar survey in 2015.
Since 2015, Harvard has devoted more resources to preventing sexual assaults and harassment, including boosting its Title IX office to increase training and investigate allegations. Yet the student experience remains stubbornly unchanged.
At Harvard, 12.4 percent of undergraduate and graduate students reported experiencing penetration or sexual touching by force, coercion, or without their agreement, a similar rate to 2015. Nearly 80 percent of the incidents involved alcohol and in three-quarters of the cases, the offender was another Harvard student, according to the report.
The prevalence of sexual assault at Harvard is “profoundly disturbing,” Harvard president Lawrence Bacow said in an e-mail sharing the results with the university community. “We must do better.”
At Harvard and other universities, victims of sexual assault remain skeptical that their complaints will be taken seriously, according to the survey.
The majority of women who experienced nonconsensual sexual penetration or touching at Harvard said they didn’t seek the university’s help because they thought they could handle the situation themselves. Many said they didn’t think the situation was “serious enough” or that they were embarrassed or ashamed.
At BU, more than half the students who experienced sexual assault didn’t contact campus officials, offering similar reasons.
The survey also found that sexual harassment — in the form of offensive jokes, inappropriate comments about students’ bodies, or persistent request for dates, even after the student said “no” — remains a problem on campuses. Nearly 19 percent of students nationally reported that sexually harassing behavior interfered with their academic performance.
Among graduate students, the harasser was most likely to be a faculty member or instructor, the survey found.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, professors at universities across the country have been pushed out over allegations of sexual misconduct, with some of the claims dating back decades.
Earlier this year, Harvard took the unusual step of stripping a former provost, Jorge Dominguez, of privileges granted to retired faculty after an internal investigation found a pattern of sexual misconduct over four decades.
At Dartmouth College, three psychology professors retired or resigned after students brought allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against them. At MIT, a professor at the university’s Media Lab was removed over violations of the university’s sexual harassment policy.
The recent revelations that MIT took money from the disgraced financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein have triggered calls for cultural changes.
Reif said the survey results echoed many of the concerns he has heard from faculty, staff, and students.
“We must focus our attention on the issues specific to sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment,” Reif said. “And at the same time, as a community, we must identify and push back against aspects of our culture, including the power imbalances that exist across MIT, that can make these problems worse.”