Letter to the Editor: Tackling sexual assault starts with understanding campus climate

Sexual assault on college campuses is an epidemic and remains a pervasive problem that affects a massive cross-section of our student body. In 2015, the Association of American Universities published the results of the USC Campus Climate Survey, which shed light on the breadth and depth of this problem. A similar anonymous, private survey link was emailed to all students at the start of this month, and it is imperative that every student take a few minutes to fill this out, share their experiences and work as a member of the Trojan Family to combat sexual assault.

The statistics collected by the 2015 survey illustrated awful truths about the prevalence of sexual assault at USC. For instance, the survey results reported that a disconcerting 29.7% of female undergraduates experienced non-consensual penetration or sexual touching since entering college. Undergraduates who do not identify as male or female experienced an even higher rate, 34.2%. This data is shocking and difficult to reconcile with our image of a united and supportive student body.

It is uncomfortable to confront these numbers, but such data are key to building momentum for solutions. In the wake of these statistics, a number of student- and administration-led initiatives have sprung up to fight sexual assault. Additional resources have been allocated for Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services as well as the Engemann Student Health Center, and campus leaders such as Interim President Wanda Austin and President-elect Carol Folt have made it a part of their mission to boldly confront sexual assault on campus.

Efforts have been made, and resources have been allocated. However, sexual assault remains a major issue in the community. Since the last campus climate survey was administered, we’ve seen controversy after controversy linked to improper sexual behavior. In 2017, a former dean of the Keck School of Medicine resigned amid allegations that he had sexually harassed a medical school fellow. In 2018, allegations against former campus gynecologist George Tyndall left deep scars in the USC community and fissured the trust of the student body. To this day, among both undergraduate and graduate students, sexual assault remains a persistent problem echoing across university life.

At a time when USC is battered by such scandals, it can be easy to feel powerless as a student. Many of us are struggling to handle midterms and papers, quickly scanning through Los Angeles Times investigative articles while keeping up with our studies. But the campus climate survey is an opportunity — a chance to share our experiences and make a concerted effort to change the University’s culture.

Last year, I was privileged to serve as a senator in Undergraduate Student Government. While running for election, I spoke with hundreds of fellow students about what sexual assault looks like on campus in different student populations, and how pervasive the issue is. Speaking with offices like Title IX and RSVP to communicate these experiences, I found that there is a gap in our and our administration’s education and awareness of appropriate sexual behaviors. Solving this issue became a guiding mission for our team at USG.

Through a student coalition to improve visibility and education on the issue, USG founded the school’s Bystander Intervention Training Program: Trojans Act Now, an ongoing partnership with RSVP. The program received endorsements from 53 different student organizations on campus, and USG heard how sexual assault affects disparate student communities from dance teams to volunteer organizations.

Across the board, there was a consensus that student leaders need to have a voice in reforming our community. Where the administration has struggled to educate and improve campus climate, we as students are determined to succeed. And while such efforts by campus leaders are vital to creating change, students need to make an effort as individuals as well.

In effect, this is the value of the 2019 Campus Climate Survey. The survey is an opportunity for students to drive USC’s conversation on sexual assault and share the realities of being a college student in a way that isn’t glamorized in pamphlets or at high school recruiting sessions.

To be certain, the survey can be difficult to fill out. It may mean recounting painful memories, and the courage of survivors willing to share must be appreciated. Solving any problem first requires understanding the issue. And to contribute to this understanding is admirable. To form a comprehensive remedy, it is critical that these experiences be relayed.

The aggregated results from this survey will be made publicly available, and will drive policy at the school, state and national levels. They will guide administrative decisions on budgeting, hiring and resource distribution. More than a data point, each survey represents an experience that is shared, heard and can be equipped for advocacy and improvement at every level in our community. For the sake of your fellow students and future Trojans, please take the time to look back through your inbox and submit your responses to this survey. Help pave the way to a campus community free of sexual assault.

The confidential, individualized links were originally sent from 2019campusclimatesurvey@westat.com on April 2 to all students’ USC emails.

Matthew Crane

Class of 2019