Highly publicized college sex crimes have recently captured public and policy attention. In response, greater discussion has turned to institutional accountability and controversial reforms such as mandatory reporting (MR). No study to date has measured public perceptions of campus sex assault procedures, however. This omission is notable because public opinion can directly and indirectly shape crime policy and because the topic has become increasingly politicized. Drawing on a 2015 poll of Virginia residents, this study evaluates views about campus sexual assault policy. Results indicate that two thirds of the public feel universities can effectively respond to sex crime and a large majority favors MR. Some differences in public opinion are evident. Research and policy implications are discussed.
Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came from?
The motivation of the study was to explore public attitudes toward a sensitive and increasingly politicized topic concerning sex crime, that is, perceptions of campus sex assault (CSA) policy in the U.S. Our primary focus was on mandatory reporting and accountability views given growing public concern about how institutions of higher education (IHEs) are addressing and responding to CSA. CSA affects everyone, not just those attending a college or university. IHEs are funded in part by public dollars and for that reason and others, the public would seem to be an important stakeholder in discussions and debates about how best to protect students and the campus community from sex crime.
We were fortunate to have access to a recent poll at the time, the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Commonwealth Education Poll conducted by the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs in 2015. The statewide survey included questions concerning resident support for MR and perceptions about CSA and accountability. Virginia is one of the first states to adopt an MR policy and so it was a natural starting point for us. Under the law, “responsible employees” at any public IHE (faculty, administrators) are required to report allegations that are disclosed to them to the university’s Title IX Coordinator. From that point, the Coordinator, in consultation with a committee of the university community, determines if the allegation is serious enough to report to local law enforcement. In such cases, victims are contacted by either the Title IX Office and/or law enforcement. The law is controversial because some opponents view it as paternalistic as it reduces victim autonomy in reporting. Others worry that is will divert valuable law enforcement resources for claims that are potentially falsified (e.g., say a student “discloses” sexual assault in a creative writing class assignment but the allegation is false) or unsubstantiated.
An overwhelming majority of the public, over 90 percent, in our study approved of Mandatory Reporting. Factors associated with Mandatory Reporting support include believing in accountability, that institutions can reduce rape among students, and also, older age. Less agreement surrounded the perception that university policy significantly reduces CSA. Approximately two thirds of the public agreed that administrative action would reduce sexual assault among students. The characteristics that influenced this perception of accountability included holding the belief that universities are generally unsafe places, higher education, and Democratic political ideology.
What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?
The greatest challenge was defending the scope and goal of the project. All too often, there is a devaluing of public opinion research. “Why care what the public thinks?” “The public is ignorant.” These statements illustrate the disdain I have run across in pursuing this strand of scholarship in academic circles. Even colloquially, I have heard my students or others claim, “I don’t care what people think.” But I would counter that as criminologists, we MUST care, we MUST measure, we MUST track perceptions, views, attitudes, and knowledge among the public. Public perceptions, yes, are difficult to capture, but if we extended that logic to our subject matter, we would be out of business. I would argue that public opinion research is no more elusive or less deserving of attention than tracking trends in sexual assault, evaluating the efficacy of treatment and intervention, or examining the criminal justice response to sexual offending. Public views, for better or worse, matter in the creation of sex crime policy.
Off the soap box for now, but the skepticism toward public opinion research was the major substantive challenge we ran across. Our hope, to some small extent, is that we have made the case for why we MUST give serious empirical attention to a scholarly topic that is often ignored.
Of course, like other research, our focus could be further explored and refined. We were challenged by some of the survey items which were general indicators of views about Mandatory Reporting and accountability, and also by the limited predictors of perceptions available in the poll. The data were also from a single state and findings are not necessarily generalizable to national trends. But challenges represent future opportunities, no?
What do you believe to be to be the main things that you have learnt about campus sexual assault?
The main contribution is that the public supports various efforts and measures to better respond to CSA. Few divides in public attitudes toward Mandatory Reporting and accountability were evident. Having said that, some members of the public held different perspectives concerning the law and administrative action. These divides are deserving of additional examination.
Now that you’ve published the article, what are some implications for practitioners?
A policy lesson here is that the public appears concerned about CSA. When do 90%+ of the public EVER agree on a controversial policy like Mandatory Reporting? This large consensus, admittedly less so for accountability perceptions, suggests that administrators and policymakers consider efforts to engage the public in discussions and debates about CSA, particularly when it affects publicly-funded institutions.
Christina Mancini, Ph.D.