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Understanding and Responding to Campus Sexual Assault:

Campus Climate Assessments at Rutgers University:

Building Safer Campus Communities

In 2014, Rutgers University–New Brunswick launched #iSPEAK, its first campus climate survey about sexual violence, at the request of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. In an inquiry of massive scope, more than 12,000 students were asked about their attitudes and beliefs about campus sexual violence,, as well as their familiarity with campus resources intended to address such violence.  To download the original 2014 campus climate survey, click here. 

Since then, the Rutgers’ campus climate surveys have continually evolved based on the best science available. They were conducted on the Newark and Camden campuses and, in 2018, repeated on the New Brunswick campus. In the 2018 survey, respondents were randomly assigned to either a sexual violence module or a newly added dating violence moduleTo download the full 2018 survey, click here.

In 2019-2020, a modified survey, which also examined sexual harassment, was administered at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS). The results from this survey are currently being analyzed. 

In total, the campus climate survey has been distributed to more than 54,500 students on the New Brunswick, Camden, Newark, and RBHS campuses. More than 22,000 students have returned the survey. These surveys have yielded a wealth of rich information about the experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of students related to sexual violence on campus.  What’s more, they have led to significant changes in campus policies and services regarding sexual violence.  


The Rutgers Model for Comprehensive Campus Climate Assessments

The student surveys represent only one piece of a larger endeavor to involve the entire Rutgers community in an ongoing effort to better understand and respond to campus violence. The process began in 2014, when Rutgers was invited by The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to pilot a campus climate survey tool developed by the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against. The resulting project was a joint effort between Student Affairs and researchers from Rutgers’ Center on Violence Against Women and Children (VAWC) at the School of Social Work. The team was committed to developing a comprehensive, collaborative process that would maximize community input and utilize the resulting data to create an action plan. 

The first stage involved engaging key partners. The team met with representatives of senior university leadership to obtain institutional support, which was critical to the success of the survey. The team also convened a multi-disciplinary advisory board (AB), which included representatives from the Title IX office, victim services, residence life, and student affairs, along with student representation. 

Before drafting the survey, the team completed a resource audit to document the current campus infrastructure for responding to and preventing sexual violence. This involved reviewing sexual assault policies, investigative and adjudicative protocols, sexual violence services, and prevention programing. 

Many campus climate surveys focus on the incidence or prevalence of sexual victimization; however, Rutgers’ broader conceptualization includes the way the campus responds to sexual assault, campus policies, and how safe students feel on campus. The team adapted an existing survey instrument from the Not Alone toolkit to suit our purposes. It was piloted with a small sample of students before being widely administered. 

To make the survey as inclusive as possible, all students enrolled at Rutgers–New Brunswick during the fall semester of 2014 (both undergraduates and graduates) were invited to participate. The survey was promoted via social media campaigns, printed advertisements, and on-campus tabling. Student organizations, student leaders, faculty, staff, and members of the AB all helped publicize the survey.

To gain a more in-depth view of students’ perceptions, the team supplemented the survey with focus groups. The team held focus groups with members of the general undergraduate student population and specific subsets of the study body, including survivors of campus violence, LGBTQI+ students, graduate students, students affiliated with cultural centers, student government leaders, resident assistants, on-campus residents, commuter students, members of sororities and fraternities, and athletes. A total of more than 40 focus groups comprised of more than 270 students were conducted from 2014 through 2018.

The key findings from the surveys and focus groups were presented to the student affairs leadership team, key stakeholders, and several student groups, who were encouraged to participate in the action phase of the process. The student affairs team crafted an action plan to address each key finding. 

Ultimately, this comprehensive assessment approach had a positive impact in a number of ways. First, the methodology itself proved to be an awareness-raising experience for many students. Participants generally expressed thanks for the survey, a desire to learn more about sexual violence, or an interest in becoming involved in addressing the issue. 

In addition, the impact of the project is demonstrated through its important findings and the implementation of changes on campus to better address sexual violence, discussed below. 


Campus Climate Survey Results Highlights:

  • Many students experience sexual and dating violence prior to and since arriving on campus, and LGBTQI+ students experienced greater victimization. This suggests that students should be offered sexual and dating violence programming, education, and assistance immediately upon arriving at Rutgers, and repeatedly throughout their educational experience. Programming specific to the LGBTQI+ community must also be offered. 

Many students have low awareness of the campus resources intended to address campus violence. Students should be made aware of all the on-campus resources available to them. Examples of such formal on-campus resources include staff from the Title IX office, the on-campus victim services center (the Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance), and Counseling Services. 

  • Students who have been victims of sexual violence tend to disclose their experience to formal resources at extremely low rates. In order to feel fully comfortable disclosing to formal resources, students should be made aware of the processes and procedures that will occur if they make a formal report.
  • Peers are an important source of support for students who experience interpersonal violence. All students must understand how the university responds to interpersonal violence on campus and how to act as a helpful bystander to prevent the occurrence of interpersonal violence, as well as better support survivors on campus.

To download the full results from the 2018 New Brunswick campus climate survey, click here.

To download the report to Rutgers University-Camden from the 2016 survey, click here

To download the report to Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences New Jersey Medical School from the 2019 survey, click here for report and here for all tables

To download the report to Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences School of Public Health from the 2019 survey, click here for report and here for all tables

To download the report to Rutgers University-Newark from the 2016 survey, click here



Campus Climate Surveys Special Reports:

As part of the survey process, researchers held a series of focus groups with student groups across all the campuses. Through those focus groups we have learned that Rutgers students’ experiences, beliefs, and attitudes regarding sexual violence and awareness of campus resources vary widely. Researchers have analyzed the data from the campus climate surveys to understand the unique experiences of specific student populations. Please click the links below to download these reports. 


Action Plans Resulting from the Campus Climate Surveys:

Survey results were used to develop tailored action plans on each campus to enhance the response to, and prevention of, campus sexual violence. 

At Rutgers–Newark, a Climate Survey Action Plan Committee was formed and offers many educational brochures, information sessions, and web-based trainings around sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence, and consent.  Click here to learn more about this action plan

At Rutgers-Camden, a Prevention Working Group offers violence prevention education to all students on an ongoing basis. Many new programs working with diverse campus populations -- including Student Success Coaches, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs and Athletics, RUPD, the Graduate School Deans and Program Directors, and Student Health Services (among others) – have emerged to offer coordinated sexual violence prevention and response programming. Click here to learn more about this action plan.

At Rutgers-New Brunswick, a collaborative group, End Sexual Violence Now, was created and included staff from student affairs. The strategic areas of the group have included outreach, programming, assessment, supporting individual office efforts across the campus, and policy and training. Additionally, a webpage dedicated to addressing sexual and dating violence on campus was developed and released and programs and initiatives that the Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance (VPVA) has hosted for years received additional support and were incorporated into the broader action plan. Click here to learn more about this action plan.


To Conduct a Campus Climate Assessment on Your Campus:

Understanding and Responding to Campus Sexual Assault: A Guide to Climate Assessment for Colleges and Universitiesis a free, detailed guide developed by VAWC for other campuses interested in conducting comprehensive campus climate assessments. 

VAWC also created an Outreach Strategy Toolkit to help institutions create awareness among students about the campus climate survey and motivate them to participate. 


Additional Information and Resources:

Rutgers was awarded more than $9 million in Victims of Crime Act funds through the New Jersey Attorney General’s office for the period of 2017-2021 to further build upon campus climate findings. These funds will be used to develop innovative programs to engage men and other special populations of students; strengthen partnerships with university neighbors and community-based service providers; expand bystander intervention education; and involve student leaders, as well as faculty and staff, in efforts to build a safe and inclusive campus.

A report on the Rutgers process and model was submitted to the White House and has been used by the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) to provide support to other campuses engaging in this work. 

VAWC provides ongoing evaluation of Rutgers’ initiatives, as well as technical assistance on evidence-based practices to all its campuses, interested institutions across the state of New Jersey, and around the country.

Members of the Rutgers community have been engaged in statewide initiatives aimed at tackling the issue of campus sexual violence, including: 

  • NJ Conference on Campus Sexual Violence: In 2019, Rutgers partnered with campus programs, non-profit organizations, other institutions of higher education, service providers, state officials, and secondary schools to exchange ideas and resources and develop efforts for collaboration. 
  • Technical Assistance Workshops: As a result of this conference, VAWC has organized a series of three statewide workshops covering issues of campus climate surveys, working with diverse student populations, and engaging middle and high school stakeholders.
  • New Jersey’s Plan for Higher Education: Members of the VAWC team were among the 19 Rutgers community members that were chosen to participate in the Safe and Inclusive Learning Environments working group as part of the Governor’s Plan for Higher Education.

Researchers from VAWC have published a number of articles related to conducting comprehensive campus programming and evaluation, including the following:

  1. McMahon, S., Steiner, J., Snyder, S., & Banyard, V. (2019). Comprehensive prevention of campus sexual violence: Expanding who is invited to the table. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse.
  2. McMahon, S., Wood, L., Cusano, J., & Macri, L. (2019). Campus sexual assault: Future directions for research.  Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 31(3), 270–295.
  3. McMahon, S., Stepleton, K., Cusano, J., O’Connor, J., Gandhi, K., & McGinty, F. (2018). Beyond sexual assault surveys: A model for conducting a comprehensive campus climate assessment. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 55 (1), 78-90.



#iSPEAK was launched in 2014 at the request of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, using a campus climate survey tool developed by the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. 

Researchers from Rutgers’ Center on Violence Against Women and Children (VAWC) at the School of Social Work partnered closely with Student Affairs to conduct the project.

For more information visit or contact Dr. Sarah McMahon,




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