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An Embarrassingly Inept Question

On September 21, when the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct results were reported, Phil Hanlon wrote an e-mail to the campus in which he announced that further research would be done on the issue of sexual assault and the College’s overall campus climate:

In October, we will launch our own Community Study, a campus-wide survey that looks not just at sexual assault, but at the entire learning, working, and living environment at Dartmouth.

The safety of our students is our top priority, and the information from the two surveys will help to direct our work and track progress as we continue to build a safer, more respectful, and more supportive community.

As we noted last week, the College’s “Dartmouth Community Study” is now out for all the world to see, and lo and behold, there is only a single question in it that relates to sexual assault (Note: You can take the survey as many times as you want by clicking here, and to do so you need not be related to the College in any way — so much for data integrity):

Questionairre Sexual Assault.jpg

What a poorly phrased question, one that nonetheless will lead to endless headlines in The D and national media about how “X% of Dartmouth Women Report Being Assaulted.”

But let’s leave aside the particularly weak syntax in the above question and focus on how the query on assault conflates an unseemly number of actions into one. For example, “fondling, however slight” is included in the question along with “gang rape.” It would seem that a student would have to respond in the affirmative to the above question if a partner’s hand in a slow dance (does such a thing still occur?) wandered downward and without permission caressed the upper part of the student’s gluteus maxiumus. A respondent would similarly answer “yes,” if subjected to a gang rape.

Who the heck would draft such a question? Certainly not anyone who had spent more than a week in almost any social science course at the College. And certainly nobody who read any of the criticism of the recent AAU study on sexual assault, which was equally guilty of lumping into a single category actions that would elicit punishments ranging from “say you’re sorry and don’t do it again” to life imprisonment. In fact, no single person drafted such a hodgepodge; the fingerprints of a committee are all over this weak piece of writing — and thinking. The data derived from this question will be misleading at best, and deeply damaging to the College at worst. Probably both.

Once again we have an illustration of the wide gulf between our élite students and faculty, and the army of mediocre administrators that soaks up the far greater part of the College’s budget. Until that imbalance is corrected, until the day that the College cuts costs and takes power away from the deans, we will continue to see such self-inflicted wounds, and the quality of a Dartmouth education will continue to slide.

Addendum: A good lawyer would have a field day with the third-rate drafting here. Note how in the first section of the parenthesis before the first semi-colon a distinction is made between “body part or object”; yet in the second section on fondling, reference is only made to “any object” — leading to the inescapable conclusion that groping with one’s hands however intimate does not fall into the categories of activity covered by this question. I could go on, but you get the gist.


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