Taking action on results of MIT student sexual misconduct survey

October 15, 2019
L. Rafael Reif, President, 2012–2022 | Cynthia Barnhart, Chancellor, 2014–2021 |

To the members of the MIT community,

In keeping with our commitment to self-examination, today we are releasing MIT’s results from the spring 2019 Association of American Universities (AAU) Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct. I believe we must use the data to inform our collective soul-searching and problem-solving as we take these initial next steps:

  • Assess where we have and have not made inroads in our fight against sexual violence, harassment, and other forms of misconduct;
  • Determine which strategies are working, and where and how we can do more – specifically in terms of education and prevention; accountability, transparency, and policies; and advocacy and support; and
  • Launch community-wide conversations that lead to specific actions we can take to improve our campus climate and become the community we aspire to be.

We are sharing two survey reports: one with MIT results and the other with aggregate AAU results from the 33 universities and colleges that participated in the survey. We are also releasing all of MIT’s data tables. Below you will find a summary of preliminary survey insights, our initial actions in response, and ways that you can get involved.

This is a long letter. But given the gravity of the subject and its relevance to MIT’s climate and culture issues, I hope everyone – faculty, students, and staff – will take the time to read it in its entirety.

Gratitude and Resources

I begin by expressing my gratitude to the thousands of students who completed our survey. By sharing your experiences and insights, you are helping to make things better for today’s students and for tomorrow’s.

I also want to acknowledge the impact survey results of this nature might have on our community, survivors in particular. That is why I encourage anyone who needs support to contact these resources or to reach out to one of the 24-hour organizations listed at the end of this email. Avenues for reporting misconduct are also included below.


On April 2, 2019, we invited all undergraduate and graduate students to complete the AAU comprehensive survey to help us understand students’ experiences with sexual assault and misconduct. Forty percent completed the survey.

According to the AAU, for the 21 schools that participated in both their 2015 and 2019 surveys, the rate of nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent increased from 2015 to 2019 by 3 percentage points for undergraduate women (to 26.4 percent), 2.4 percentage points for graduate and professional women (to 10.8 percent), and 1.4 percentage points for undergraduate men (to 6.9 percent). We did not participate in the 2015 AAU survey.

The AAU survey’s overall rate of non-consensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent was 13 percent in 2019. The overall aggregate rate of non-consensual sexual contact by physical force, inability to consent, coercion, or without voluntary agreement was 16.5 percent in 2019.

Key MIT Results

We have worked diligently to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct at MIT but it remains clear from these results that we continue to face a serious problem. The linked data summaries below provide more in-depth views into MIT’s data in the following categories: prevalence of nonconsensual sexual contact, sexual harassment, bystander intervention, and awareness and use of MIT support resources. I highlight the following points here because these data will inform where we focus our attention next:

  • Nonconsensual sexual contact: One in 14 MIT students (7.2 percent) experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent. The rate for undergraduate women is 18.4 percent; for non-heterosexual students is 13.9 percent; for transgender, genderqueer, or nonbinary (TGQN) students is 11.9 percent; for graduate women is 8.3 percent; for undergraduate men is 6.5 percent; and for graduate men is 1.4 percent.

    One in nine MIT students (11.0 percent) experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, inability to consent, coercion, or without voluntary agreement. The rate for undergraduate women is one in four; for TGQN students is one in five; and for graduate women is one in seven.

  • Sexual harassment: One in six MIT students experienced sexual harassment; of this group, seven out of 10 are women. The rate for TGQN students is one in three.
  • Bystander behavior: Eight in 10 MIT students took some type of action when they witnessed sexually harassing behaviors by others.
  • Resource awareness: Nearly two in three students are aware of MIT’s Violence Prevention and Response (VPR) and Title IX and Bias Response (T9BR) offices.

We compared our 2019 data to AAU aggregate results, and where we could, we commented on how these results compare to data from our first survey in 2014. Comparisons to 2014 are difficult to make, however, because many questions in the two surveys and the methods for reporting the results are different.

The data summaries reflect preliminary analysis and are not exhaustive. We will continue to analyze the survey data and invite you to share your questions or suggestions for additional analysis and next steps by emailing community-climate@mit.edu.

Taking Action

What we have learned in the five years since our first survey very much echoes the recommendations from the 2018 National Academies Report on the Sexual Harassment of Women in Academia: We need to ground our approach in education and prevention; accountability, transparency, and sound policies; and advocacy and support. Our next steps include:

Designing Solutions through Community Engagement

A major lesson from this survey is that every day at MIT, some people are working or residing in environments where sexual harassment and misconduct are occurring, while others are failing to understand or choosing to ignore how their actions and attitudes are harming the people they work or live with. This says to me that we have pervasive climate and culture issues, and that we must work with campus experts and at all levels of the Institute to change behaviors. We need to enact solutions that are designed by and for our community.

To advance this work, as President Reif noted, I will host a series of forums to discuss the survey results and to generate ideas for bolstering support, education, prevention, transparency, and accountability. The first will be on November 5 at 4 p.m. in 10-250. I encourage as many students, faculty, and staff as possible to attend, and to watch for news about additional forums planned for this term and next.

Increasing Education and Resources

Following our 2014 sexual misconduct survey, we instituted online training for incoming students and current employees and ramped up in-person group education. We are further expanding our educational offerings to respond to the growing number of requests for in-person trainings and to the recommendation from the Institute Committee on Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response for required ongoing education, to be delivered in-person or online.

To meet the broadened scope of our education programs, as well as to advance advocacy, support, and several of the other steps described below, we will hire additional staff in Violence Prevention and Response (VPR), Student Mental Health and Counseling Services, and the Title IX and Bias Response Office (T9BR). Additionally, the administration will provide resources to encourage and support efforts that address MIT’s climate and culture issues.

Implementing New Policy and Reporting on Complaints of Sexual Misconduct Against Faculty and Staff

After a comprehensive review, which included gathering input from community members, a new policy has been developed and approved for handling harassment and discrimination complaints against faculty and staff. The revised faculty and staff policy will go into effect on February 3, 2020. This policy, which will rely on professional, neutral investigators to conduct fact finding, will provide enhanced processes for consistent and fair handling of these types of complaints.

We are also committed to being more transparent in releasing aggregate statistics about the outcomes of faculty and staff cases in a manner that balances transparency with important privacy and confidentiality interests of those involved in complaints. We will update the community on this work in the coming months.

Opening New Central Office for Responding to Discrimination

I am pleased to announce that T9BR has hired more staff so it can expand its scope to be the single portal all community members can access when they are concerned they have been subject to discriminatory treatment at MIT. With these expanded duties will come a new name: the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response Office (IDHR). The office will be up and running at the beginning of next semester and, in consultation with central Human Resources and the General Counsel’s Office, will be responsible for implementing the policy described above.

Sharing and Implementing Recommendations from the Working Groups Responding to the National Academies Report on Sexual Harassment

Last April, we announced that President Reif was establishing an advisory board of senior officers and four working groups responsible for responding to the National Academies report’s specific recommendations.

These groups are focusing on leadership, policies, training, and the power imbalances in many working and academic relationships at MIT. They welcome your ideas, suggestions, and perspectives about their work, and have set up this form to receive feedback. The draft reports will be available for comment on my website at the end of October, and the co-chairs will present their recommendations at the November 5 forum in order to collect community input before implementation.

Coordinating Activities

The MindHandHeart (MHH) team is working with departments to understand and improve academic cultures and climates. You can read more about the MHH Department Support Project, a data-informed initiative designed to cultivate welcoming and inclusive learning environments, here.

In Closing

A colleague said to me recently that a community’s culture is defined by the behaviors the community tolerates. Sadly, we have continued to tolerate deeply disturbing behaviors, and that tolerance has caused pain to many members of our community. Fortunately, I believe we now have the will and the community momentum we need to come together to fix these systemic issues.

To everyone who makes it their daily mission to fight for an MIT where every community member is safe and treated with respect, I look forward to continuing to partner with you, and to encouraging more colleagues and students to join us in this work.


Cynthia Barnhart

Support Resources

Reporting Resources