No one disputes that Tulane University’s latest student survey on the prevalence of campus sexual misconduct laid bare a problem that was starkly worse than some may have expected.

What experts say is harder to decide is whether the figures mean the elite New Orleans university has a much bigger problem than its peers around the country, or whether it simply did a better job of measuring sexual assault by using the most up-to-date methods.

“I don’t know if we’re going to know that answer yet, simply because we’re now better understanding sexual violence research and sexual violence in this country,” said Meredith Smith, the assistant provost in charge of Tulane’s sexual assault reporting.

The wide-ranging survey, developed by national researchers in 2014, found that four in 10 undergraduate women said they have been subject to unwanted sexual contact since enrolling at Tulane. Nearly a quarter of them reported being raped.

The 60-page report was packed with dispiriting figures not only on sexual assault and rape but also on coercion, stalking, dating violence and harassment collected from graduate and undergraduate women, men, students of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer-identity students.

Tulane survey finds 4 in 10 undergraduate women have been sexually assaulted; nearly 1 in 4 report rape

When it was released last month, university officials largely sidestepped the question of whether the findings showed the situation at Tulane was significantly worse than anywhere else.

They noted the survey was taken in the midst of a push to address sexual misconduct on campus and after polarizing events like the national Women’s March and the election of Donald Trump as president. They also pointed out that almost half of Tulane's students took part in the survey, which was specifically designed to combat underreporting.

Cory Cole, vice president of the on-campus student group Sexual Aggression Peer Hotline and Education, said it is possible there is more sexual violence at Tulane than other universities, but it’s also possible the numbers were higher because students were more comfortable disclosing their experiences due to a cultural shift toward supporting survivors.

“Regardless of whether or not Tulane's numbers are abnormal compared to the national average, the numbers are still unacceptable,” Cole said. "Two in five women and 18 percent of men is clearly unacceptable, but the so-called 'normal values' are also unacceptable."

Cole said that while the numbers may have been shocking to some, students were not surprised.

“For people who go to Tulane and who have experienced sexual assault or known people who have, the number is pretty consistent with what we've observed in our own lives,” she said. “These numbers basically confirm what student activists and employees within the Tulane administration, like the Title IX office and the Office of Case Management, have been saying for a long time.”

But the natural urge to compare Tulane’s results with other universities is not easily satisfied, and that’s not entirely an accident, either. Timing, response rates and the survey itself influence the extent to which schools can probe a subject researchers say has been chronically prone to underreporting.

And the survey Tulane used, known as the ARC3, was designed to get a fuller accounting of the problem. Instead of simply asking respondents if they have been assaulted, for example, it asks if they have been subjected to a range of specific unwanted sexual acts, among other methods.

“Typically, the more items you use, the higher the rates are,” said Kevin Swartout, a Georgia State University psychologist who helped design the ARC3. “Respondents are more likely to see something that matches their experience.”

Default expectation

Smith said there is a default expectation that sexual assault rates should be about 1-in-4 but that is simply outdated. More sophisticated surveys, she said, will bear this out in coming years.

“This is not a problem that is unique to Tulane,” she said. “This is a problem at every college in America.”

The recent scramble by universities to measure sexual assault came in response to a 2011 letter from the Department of Education affirming that students have a legal right to be safe from the threat of sexual assault on campus.

Some schools developed their own climate surveys and others paid for privately developed instruments, but the options were expensive. The Association of American Universities developed a survey in 2014, but researchers argued that plans to release only aggregate data meant it wasn’t transparent enough.

Ultimately, only about half of the 60 member schools participated in the survey, and many of those that did not, including Tulane, decided to use the ARC3, which had been created around the same time by a group of sexual assault researchers and student affairs professionals.

Tulane had added questions about sexual assault to two unrelated, more general student surveys it conducted in 2014 and 2015, and they found an 18 percent rate of unwanted sexual contact reported by undergraduate women. But administrators knew the response rate to those surveys was low and the findings incomplete.

“That was the big takeaway from the findings of that survey — we need to do this and do it right,” said Smith, whose hiring at that time was part of Tulane’s response to the renewed emphasis on combating sexual assault.

Comparisons between completely different surveys are problematic for obvious reasons. But Swartout and Smith also say that comparisons even among schools that used the ARC3 are difficult because they are encouraged to customize it as they see fit. The scope of the questions varies and methodologies can differ, as can how — and how much of — the findings are presented to the public.

A review by The Advocate of roughly a half-dozen publicly available ARC3 findings, including those from the University of Texas system and the universities of Illinois and Iowa, found some lower rates of sexual assault and rape but also seemed to indicate that apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult to come by.

All were done earlier than the Tulane survey, and the response rates were as low as 6 percent and 9 percent.

There was one potential point of comparison. Penn State reported ARC3 results in 2016 that included somewhat comparable rates of unwanted sexual contact reported by undergraduates on its main campus: 35 percent of undergraduate women and 10 percent of men, compared with Tulane’s 40 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

In addition to being conducted a year earlier, the response rate was 27 percent, which Penn State called “strong” even though it was 20 percentage points lower than what Tulane got.

Tulane’s rate “is one of the highest response rates that I’ve seen,” said Swartout, who was hired by Tulane in November to independently verify the results and who now chairs a panel of national experts that will advise Tulane on how to tackle the problem.

Trend undeniably upward

The difficulties in comparing surveys, particularly those favored by researchers, is not unintentional. Unlike federal lawmakers who were leaning toward a more consumer-oriented approach as they considered legislation, researchers don’t share that enthusiasm.

"We like rankings, but having comparative data like that doesn't do much good, quite frankly," Noël Busch-Armendariz, a domestic violence and sexual assault researcher from the University of Texas at Austin, told Inside Higher Ed in July 2016. "You want colleges to be able to use their surveys to develop programs specific to their campuses. It's about being transparent and being able to be fully informed about the issues. That's the real purpose of having these benchmarks."

Tulane’s Smith said the trend in sexual assault reporting overall is undeniably upward, as public awareness increases and the science behind surveys improves. She noted that her alma mater, Northwestern University, conducted a survey that showed a sexual assault rate of about a third; it was conducted in 2015 and had a 15 percent response rate, about half of what researchers shoot for.

“This is a brand new ballgame for sexual violence research,” she said. “We haven’t been in the position to have so many different surveys in the field gathering data like we have had in the past few years. Hopefully, more schools will be visible with their data like Tulane has been so we can all get a better sense of how much more the research has yielded.”

Last week, the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board opined that the Tulane survey’s definition of assault was overly broad and that its questions about the role of alcohol in sexual assault were vague.

“The school goes beyond rape or attempted rape to include any form of unwanted sexual contact, including a stolen kiss or hug,” they wrote. “The latter may be unwelcome, but are they assault?”

Smith noted a hug was not among the acts considered assault and questioned why anything said to be “stolen” would be considered acceptable.

“I challenge them to look at this broader definition of sexual assault as not something that is more vague but instead more accurate,” she said. “This is what sexual assault has meant all along, and the victimization rates from campus climate surveys from Duke to Northwestern to Tulane and others confirm that this is a real and prevalent issue.”

The Journal noted Tulane incentivized participation with a chance at prizes, which included a chance to win Jazz Fest tickets or free parking, which it suggested could have influenced answers.

Swartout said he did not think the broad array of questions asked would create any false positives. “I don’t think anyone could say that using more (questions) would lead to any kind of bias or false reporting,” he said.

Smith said she suspects the Journal’s board would take issue with anything that challenges conventional norms on the subject.

“We stand by our survey, and we stand up for addressing issues head-on,” she said. “We are a research university. Who would we be if we didn’t want to learn as much as we could about this and solve it?”

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.