Research at IRWG


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Leaders and Laggards: Explaining Variation in University Responses to Sexual Violence in a Changing Legal Environment

Primary Investigator(s): 
Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Sandra R. Levitsky
In Collaboration With/Organization: 
National Science Foundation
Award Year: 

Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in education. Since 1980, courts have interpreted Title IX to include protections for students against sexual harassment, including sexual assault. Yet rates of sexual violence on college campuses over the past forty years remain unchanged: roughly one in five women in the United States is sexually assaulted while in college (Cantor et al. 2015). The Obama administration sought to change this: On April 4, 2011, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title IX, released a “Dear Colleague” letter (DCL), putting universities on notice that failure to provide an educational environment free from sexual violence constitutes a violation of student civil rights. In addition to increased OCR enforcement, universities have also faced public pressure from activists and the media. Even as universities struggle to devise solutions, the legal environment is dramatically shifting again: a Trump presidency promises to halt federal pressure on universities to reduce campus sexual assault.

This project investigates how universities respond to campus sexual assault in a tumultuous legal environment. This study examines three sets of influences on university responses to an ambiguous legal environment: (1) the role of competing organizational agendas (for legitimacy and status); (2) the impact of organizational rank and resources; and (3) the influence of external pressures from regulatory agencies, social movements, and media. The study involves the construction and analysis of an original quantitative data set capturing the responses to sexual violence of 382 American universities at two points in time—2016-17 and 2019-20—identified in school sexual misconduct policies, annual security reports, and other publicly available documents. The study also involves a set of six in-depth university case studies.

The field of higher education is moving quickly, and practitioners in an uncertain legal environment are searching for research to inform their work. This data set will provide practitioners with key information about how their peers are responding to issues of sexual violence. Findings will be disseminated not only through academic journals and conferences, but also at conferences for professionals in higher education, including student affairs staff and compliance professionals. The project also serves as a vehicle to train a large, diverse, and interdisciplinary group of graduate and undergraduate students. 

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