Four in 10 undergraduate women at Tulane University say they have been victims of sexual assault — defined as any unwanted sexual contact — since enrolling, according to a survey released by the school Wednesday. Nearly a quarter said they had been raped. 

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The startling results come several years into a national reckoning with the prevalence of sexual misconduct on the nation's campuses, spurred in part by former President Barack Obama's administration, which urged colleges and universities to develop a better understanding of the problem and better policies for dealing with it. 

The Tulane survey achieved an unusually high participation rate of 47 percent, and the results were both surprising and sobering for the school's faculty and administrators. 

Tulane President Michael Fitts called the findings “very troubling." He said his administration has already begun taking steps to reduce sexual misconduct on campus and has other initiatives in the offing.

“This is a serious problem,” he said. “We had thought we had some state-of-the-art (initiatives in place) in terms of confronting it. We felt the numbers would be lower. We’re deeply concerned ... and we need to confront this.”

The data released Wednesday are likely to bring intense scrutiny for one of the state's biggest and most prestigious institutions. Tulane, which enrolls more than 5,000 undergraduate women and 13,581 students overall, is the city's largest private employer and Louisiana's most expensive and exclusive university.  

Tulane officials say the school is part of a second wave of universities to conduct the Administrator-Researcher Campus Climate Collaborative survey — known nationally as the ARC3 — which was created by sexual assault researchers and student affairs professionals in response to a 2014 initiative by the White House to more comprehensively measure campus sexual misconduct.

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The school held a town hall for students Wednesday to discuss the survey, the knowledge of which had been roiling the student body for months, though Tulane officials said they needed the intervening time to analyze and verify the data before they could be released.

Students packed the 400-capacity auditorium on the second floor of the Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life, with well over 100 more watching on monitors from outside.

One student angrily called the survey results "absolutely disgusting." A second student, a senior, said she was sexually assaulted as a freshman and recently learned her attacker, who is still a student, has assaulted someone else.

“I just don’t know what someone has to do to be institutionally punished (at Tulane),” she said.

Officials asked the woman to meet with them after the town hall.

The survey defines sexual assault as any unwanted sexual contact or sexual penetration without consent, and “without consent” as involving the use of threats or force or else acts committed while the victim was unable to prevent them because of alcohol consumption.

The survey found lower rates of sexual assault and rape reported by graduate students.

Among its findings:

  • 41 percent of undergraduate women and 18 percent of men said they were sexually assaulted since they enrolled at Tulane, regardless of where and when it happened.
  • 38 percent of undergraduate women and 16 percent of men said they were subjected to unwanted sexual contact.
  • 24 percent of undergraduate women and 11 percent of men said they were raped, which is defined as forced oral sex or penetration and is a subset of the overall sexual assault numbers.
  • 22 percent of undergraduate women and 10 percent of men reported an attempted rape since they enrolled.

In an interview this week, Fitts and other Tulane officials said the survey was undertaken in the weeks following the 2016 presidential election and the 2017 Women's March in Washington, D.C., and while the university was in the midst of its own initiatives to promote awareness of sexual assault.

Tulane had surveyed students in the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2015 and found the numbers to be not as high, though Fitts would not say how high.

But he said Tulane began to take some steps in response, conducting the ARC3 survey and hiring Meredith Smith as an assistant provost charged with overseeing sexual assault reporting. The school also made sexual assault awareness education mandatory for students who join fraternities, among other steps.

Smith and Fitts said the freshman reading project in the fall of 2016 was Kate Harding’s book “Asking for It: The alarming rise of rape culture and what we can do about it,” and the upcoming ARC3 survey was promoted at several events, including a visit from the author.

“In that drumbeat and discussion, the survey came up as a place for them to demonstrate how they cared about this issue," Smith said, explaining the high participation rate.

Senior Vice President Tania Tetlow noted that traditional surveys like the ones Tulane had already conducted tend to ask respondents directly whether they have been sexually assaulted. She said the ARC3 surveys them about their experiences, a method that helps get around the problem of underreporting of sexual assault.

At the town hall Wednesday, one student asked Fitts, Smith and Tetlow whether they felt any shame or responsibility for the results of the survey.

“It is heartbreaking,” Smith said as she tried to fight back tears. “This is horrible. This is terrible, and this is why we do the work. This is why we come to work … and you deserve better. You deserve better.”

The audience also questioned why the event wasn’t held in the much larger McAlister Auditorium. After being told that administrators were “blown away” by the student response, the audience jeered the notion that officials would be surprised by the turnout.

Asked how Tulane’s results compare with national averages, Tetlow said most schools report rates of sexual assault between 20 percent and 25 percent, though Duke University reported a 40 percent rate two years ago.

She said the results have Tulane fearing its rates may be significantly higher than at comparable campuses, though she said the results could also reflect when the ARC3 survey was taken and the fact that it is more comprehensive.

Fitts stopped short of saying whether the problem was worse than he expecting, saying the results are what they are and need to be dealt with.

He said comparisons to other schools are difficult, because only a few schools — MIT, Rutgers and the University of Texas system — have released their results.

Tulane is part of a second wave of schools to have taken the survey but is among the first of those to release the results.

“You can’t compare surveys," Fitts said. "Obviously, we’re deeply concerned about these numbers, and we want to solve this problem. I don’t want to compare us because it really is almost impossible to come to definitive conclusions in that regard.”

The report includes five pages outlining the steps Tulane has taken and what it intends to do to integrate sexual violence prevention into students' experience at the school, increase student engagement, better encourage the reporting of assault, and support survivors. The school will also work on a range of ways to address race, gender and sexual orientation as they relate to sexual violence.

More lights and cameras have been installed on campus, while education on the topic has been integrated into student programming throughout the year, not just during orientation.

Fitts said the role of alcohol in sexual assault is difficult to ignore. 

“We do think alcohol is a method of perpetration, so we’ve focused on excessive alcohol use on campus,” he said, noting that fraternities have agreed not to serve hard liquor and not to allow freshmen to participate in Greek events during the first month of the year.

With such a push for participation in the survey, students began clamoring for access to the results beginning late last year, creating a social media hashtag #WeMatterTU and a petition that garnered almost 1,500 signatures. 

Tetlow said Tulane needed the time to analyze and process the results to make sure they were accurate. "Since we had such high response rates and a wealth of data from a 30-minute survey, we really wanted to dig down into it, understand it and verify it,” Fitts agreed.

"We had hoped we could have released it sooner," she said.

Some of the survey's other findings include:

  • In the instances of sexual assault, students said the perpetrator was a friend 16 percent of the time, an acquaintance 37 percent of the time, a current or former partner 22 percent of the time and a stranger 25 percent of the time. Family member or relative came in at 0.1 percent and faculty member at 0.2 percent.
  • Sexual assault was more common among gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer respondents than their heterosexual counterparts: 51 percent of undergraduate LGBQ+ respondents and 44 percent of GBQ+ men.
  • Students of color reported lower rates than white students: 18 percent compared to 35 percent among women and 6 percent compared to 11 percent among men.
  • Graduate students also reported lower rates than their undergraduate counterparts. Sixteen percent of graduate women and 8 percent of men said they had been sexually assaulted, while 10 percent of graduate women and 5 percent of men said they had been raped. 

The survey also covered stalking, dating violence and sexual harassment and misconduct by faculty and staff.

The full results are posted on Tulane's website

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.