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Caltech Releases Results of AAU 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct

In Spring 2019, Caltech, along with 32 other colleges and universities, participated in the Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct organized by the Association of American Universities (AAU), which queried concerns related to the incidence and prevalence of sexual assault and sexual misconduct on college campuses. The survey also assessed the overall climate of each campus with respect to perceptions of risk, knowledge of resources available to victims, and perceived reactions to an incident of sexual assault or sexual misconduct. The information gathered will help to inform policies and outreach efforts created by member universities to both prevent and respond to sexual assault and sexual misconduct.

The 2019 survey was a follow-up to the 2015 Campus Climate Survey and is part a broader commitment by Caltech and its peers to understand these issues and improve the campus climate.

"Repeated participation in the AAU Campus Climate Survey permits us to benchmark Caltech's activities to our peers and our past," says Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Caltech president, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair, and professor of physics. "While most of our students are confident that their complaints about sexual harassment and sexual assault will be taken seriously and fairly addressed, we need to continue to improve our efforts in education and intervention so that all the members of our community find campus a safe and supportive environment in which to live and work."

Since the 2015 survey, Caltech has invested in and expanded the scope of its Title IX office, engaging a four-person team to address a broad base of equity issues; Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs or activities. The office now focuses on all forms of unlawful harassment, sexual misconduct, and discrimination. Among other activities, it works with students, staff, faculty, and other campus groups to bolster and expand inclusion efforts; educates the Caltech community about preventing and addressing discrimination, unlawful harassment, and sexual misconduct; and helps students communicate with each other about relevant issues including boundaries associated with drinking and sexual activity.

For the 2019 survey, Caltech conducted a census of its 2,171 students (930 undergraduates). To encourage participation, the undergraduate house with the highest percentage completion rate was offered a $1,000 fund toward the purchase of house equipment, and the division with the highest completion rate by graduate students was offered a graduate student division party. As with the 2015 survey, the statistical survey research firm Westat administered the web-based questionnaire, compiled the data, and provided individual and aggregate results.

In the end, 877 students (501 undergraduate and 376 graduate students) completed the survey, for a Caltech response rate of 40 percent. The undergraduate response rate was 54 percent and the graduate student response rate was 30 percent. Women's response rate was 51 percent compared to 34 percent for men.

For comparison, a total of 830,956 students were invited to participate in the AAU survey. The overall AAU results include 181,752 completed surveys for an AAU response rate of 22 percent.

At Caltech, the goals of the survey were to: 1) assess the prevalence of sexual assault and other misconduct; 2) describe the circumstances, student responses, and consequences associated with instances of sexual assault and other misconduct; 3) assess student perceptions surrounding sexual assault and other misconduct; 4) assess student knowledge of school resources and procedures when responding to instances of sexual assault and other misconduct; 5) assess how bystanders react in different situations related to sexual assault and other misconduct; 6) describe changes in the prevalence of nonconsensual sexual contact and in students’ perceptions and knowledge of school policies and procedures since the 2015 survey.

"The Equity Office and Title IX team is deeply grateful to all of the students who participated in the survey," says Hima Vatti, assistant vice president of equity, equity investigations, and Title IX coordinator. "These data are crucial in illuminating sexual misconduct issues on campus; opportunities for increasing student awareness of and confidence in policies, procedures, and intervention techniques; and topics and audiences for outreach efforts."

The following summary draws from both the Caltech report and the AAU aggregate report, highlights key findings, and compares Caltech results to the aggregate AAU findings.

Campus climate around sexual assault and sexual misconduct

Overall, Caltech students reported a campus climate supportive of individuals who report sexual assault or sexual misconduct.

Compared with the 2015 survey, the 2019 survey revealed an increased awareness about sexual assault, sexual misconduct, and how those actions are defined, both at Caltech and in the AAU aggregate data. The 2019 survey also showed, relatedly, an increase in student awareness of, and concerns about, potentially problematic acts, both at Caltech and across the schools participating in the AAU survey. These trends reveal an opportunity to leverage student awareness to encourage greater reporting of problematic behavior and intervention by students to stop it in their academic and personal environments. The potential for increased reporting is further bolstered by student confidence in their institutions to take reports seriously.


More Caltech students believe Institute officials would be very or extremely likely to take the sexual assault or sexual misconduct complaint seriously (74 percent compared to 66 percent across the schools participating in the AAU survey). A larger number of graduate men have this perception than graduate women (79 percent compared to 63 percent). There was, however, a small, statistically insignificant decrease in student confidence since the 2015 survey, across all Caltech student groups. A similar decrease was seen for undergraduate women in the AAU survey.More Caltech students believe Institute officials would be very or extremely likely to conduct a fair investigation (55 percent) than students at the schools participating in the AAU survey (51 percent), representing a slight decrease from the 2015 Caltech survey (59 percent) and a slight increase from the 2015 AAU survey (49 percent). Notably, however, the percentage of undergraduate women at Caltech who reported this level of confidence declined, from 61 percent to 50 percent. A similar, but smaller change was seen in the AAU aggregate data for undergraduate women, with a decline from 47 percent to 41 percent. More work must be done on campuses, including at Caltech, to understand and address the concerns underlying these results.

Caltech students also reported perceptions of a safe campus environment:

Fewer Caltech students believe that sexual assault or sexual misconduct is very or extremely problematic (8 percent compared to 25 percent across the aggregate AAU data). For both groups, however, this represents a significant increase compared with the 2015 survey (2 percent and 20 percent).Fewer Caltech students believe that the likelihood of experiencing a sexual assault or sexual misconduct on campus is very or extremely high (2 percent compared to 7 percent across the participating AAU schools). There was no change in this response from 2015 to 2019 in the Caltech sample; in the AAU aggregate sample, the number of students expressing this concern was significantly lower in 2015 (5 percent).

Frequency and nature of sexual assault and sexual misconduct

The forms of sexual misconduct surveyed included both the type of sexual contact (penetration or sexual touching) and whether it involved physical force or coercion, incapacitation (alcohol or drugs), or occurred absent affirmative consent.

Overall, members of the Caltech community were less likely than those in the AAU aggregate survey community to report an incident of nonconsensual sexual contact using any tactic (physical force, the inability to give consent, or without ongoing voluntary agreement).

Across enrollment types and gender, Caltech community members reported statistically equivalent rates of nonconsensual sexual contact since enrolling compared with the 2015 survey, whereas there was a statistically significant increase in the AAU survey aggregate.

There continues to be a gender disparity in the prevalence with which these acts are experienced, with undergraduate and graduate women being more than four times as likely as their male counterparts to experience such situations (17 percent versus 4 percent). There are also significant differences in the rates at which these acts are experienced by heterosexual students and students who identify, as defined by the survey, as "gay, lesbian, other, or multiple categories" (7 percent versus 18 percent), and between individuals who do and do not report having a disability (21 percent versus 5 percent).


Fewer Caltech students reported at least one incident of nonconsensual sexual contact using any tactic since enrolling at Caltech (9 percent compared to 17 percent across the AAU survey).At both Caltech and in the AAU survey, the rates are highest among female undergraduate students (21 percent and 32 percent) and transgender, genderqueer, and non-binary students (TGQN; 22 percent and 29 percent).In both the Caltech survey and in the aggregate AAU data, female graduate students were more likely to report nonconsensual sexual contact than male graduate students (11 percent of women and 3 percent of men at Caltech, compared to 14 percent of women and 4 percent of men in the AAU data).

Frequency and nature of sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, and stalking

The survey considered three other forms of sexual misconduct: harassing behavior, intimate partner violence, and stalking behavior.

Sexual Harassment

Fewer female students at Caltech reported experiencing harassing behavior. Specifically, 45 percent of undergraduate female students at Caltech experienced harassing behavior, compared to 59 percent of undergraduate female students across the schools participating in the AAU survey. Fifty-two percent of female graduate students at Caltech experienced harassing behavior at least once, compared to 55 percent in the AAU data.The most common behaviors reported were making inappropriate comments about bodies, appearance, or sexual behavior and making sexual remarks or insulting or offensive jokes or stories. The data indicate that, in the overwhelming majority of these cases, it was another student who made the inappropriate remarks.

Intimate Partner Violence

Among surveyed students in partnered relationships, 10 percent experienced at least one form of intimate partner violence (i.e., their partner controlled or tried to control them, threatened physical harm, used physical force, or physically hurt or injured them), in both the Caltech sample and the AAU survey. At Caltech, 34 percent of victims contacted a program or resource about their experiences.At Caltech, female graduate students in partnered relationships were more likely to experience intimate partner violence than were female graduate students in the AAU survey (12 percent versus 7 percent).Caltech students reporting a disability were significantly more likely to experience intimate partner violence than students without a disability (16 percent versus 7 percent).

Stalking Behaviors

Stalking behaviors at Caltech occur at a statistically lower rate than at participating AAU schools, with 13 percent of students experiencing at least one stalking behavior since enrolling at the Institute, compared to 16 percent across the participating AAU schools.At Caltech, stalking behavior was more commonly experienced by undergraduate females than undergraduate males (25 percent versus 10 percent) and by graduate females than by graduate males (19 percent versus 5 percent); 45 percent of TGQN students experienced at least one stalking behavior.Among those students at Caltech who experienced stalking behaviors, the offender was a Caltech student 79 percent of the time.

What students know and think about campus resources

Questions gauging student awareness of Caltech services and resources offered to victims of sexual assault and sexual misconduct were also posed. Ninety percent of students who first enrolled at Caltech in Fall 2018 reported that they completed training modules or information sessions about sexual assault or other sexual misconduct as first year students, as compared to 81 percent of first year students in the AAU aggregate data.

Data indicate that Caltech undergraduate students are generally more knowledgeable than graduate students about the Institute's sexual assault policies and procedures, where to seek help and make a report about sexual assault or sexual misconduct, and what happens after a report is made.

For example, 43 percent of Caltech students reported being very or extremely knowledgeable about where to seek help if they or a friend experience sexual assault or other sexual misconduct, compared to 37 percent in the AAU survey.However, students in the AAU survey were more knowledgeable than Caltech students about how sexual assault and other sexual misconduct is defined at their institutions (37 percent versus 31 percent).

An increased number of both female graduate students and male graduate students indicated being very or extremely knowledgeable in the areas of policies and definitions concerning sexual misconduct, as well as resources for assistance, as compared to the 2015 survey. In addition, in the 2019 survey, undergraduate male, graduate male and female, and TGQN students showed significantly greater awareness of the process for incident reporting and what happens after a report is made.

Of note, 86 percent of TGQN students at Caltech felt very or extremely knowledgeable about where to make a report (up from 22 percent in 2015, and as compared to 34 percent in the AAU survey).

Bystander reactions in situations related to sexual assault and other misconduct

A new category of questions in the 2019 survey concerned bystanders who noticed inappropriate acts or comments directed at others and the possible sexual harassment or sexual abuse of another student, and the subsequent actions of those bystanders.

Overall, students at Caltech were slightly more likely to witness behaviors that made them concerned that a fellow student was experiencing sexual harassment or that someone was behaving in a controlling or abusive way than were students participating in the AAU survey (9 percent versus 7 percent).

One-fourth of Caltech students reported they had witnessed someone at Caltech making inappropriate sexual comments about someone else’s appearance, sharing unwanted sexual images, or otherwise acting in a sexual way that seemed to make others feel uncomfortable or offended; a nearly identical rate (26 percent) was noted in the AAU survey. TGQN students (64 percent) and undergraduate females (33 percent) were most likely to witness these incidents. Seventy-two percent of Caltech students who witnessed such incidents took some action and 42 percent took direct action.

Caltech students were less likely to report observing intimate partner violence (10 percent versus 13 percent); these reports were again more common among undergraduate women (18 percent) and TGQN students (37 percent).

The full results of the Caltech Campus Climate survey are available at

The full AAU report as well as an executive summary, a description of the survey methodology, and other information is available at the AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct (2019) website.

Written by Kathy Svitil

Kathy Svitil
(626) 395-8022