Psychology, Department of



Date of this Version



24606–24608 | PNAS | October 6, 2020 | vol. 117 | no. 40


2020 Author(s)


Surveying a campus community about sexual harassment can be a daunting task during normal times. It’s especially daunting during a pandemic. Institutional leaders may balk at committing scarce resources to survey efforts. Some may wonder how to interpret results that look dramatically different from prior assessments. Also, they may worry about adding to the burdens of already stressed staff, faculty, and students. Indeed, these concerns and complexities came up recently within the work of the National Academies’ Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education (1).

This Action Collaborative grew out of the 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) consensus study report on sexual harassment in academic science, engineering, and medicine (2). Over 60 academic and research institu- tions and key stakeholders sought to work together to identify, develop, implement, and evaluate ways of preventing and addressing sexual harassment in higher education. Action Collaboratives are a rela- tively new type of activity at the National Academies [others include Clinician Well-Being and Resilience (3) and Countering the US Opioid Epidemic (4)]. Building on the National Academies’ long history of convening stakeholders and gathering research to inform decision makers and the public, Action Collaboratives provide a space for organizations and individuals to exchange information, ideas, and strategies around topics of mutual interest and concern, create new and innovative solutions, and take collective action.

When COVID-19 disrupted plans for learning and work in higher education, representatives from member institutions in our Action Collaborative asked whether they should continue campus climate surveys, and if so, how they should proceed. Here we address these questions using our extensive experience with sexual harassment research and policy. Three of us are members of the Action Collaborative’s Advisory Committee (K.J.H., L.M.C., and V.J.M.) and specialize in the psychological study of sexual harassment and violence. Two of us (A.L.B. and F.F.B.) are program officers at NASEM and currently direct and manage the Action Collaborative.

We understand and appreciate the concerns institutions have about conducting campus climate surveys during the current circumstances. However, we recom- mend that these surveys nevertheless move forward without delay. Here we explain why and how to do so. Although our advice is specific to institutions of higher education, it would apply just as well to nonacademic organizations wanting to understand member experiences of sexual harassment. While climate surveys can cover a number of topics (e.g., discrimination, safety, bullying, etc.), our focus here is on climate surveys that examine sexual harassment. Consistent with the 2018 NASEM report, we use the term “sexual harassment” in its broadest sense, referring to behaviors that derogate, humiliate, or violate people because of their sex or gender. These behaviors include many forms of wrongdoing, from gender-based insults to pornographic displays to unwanted sexual pursuit to sexual assault and rape (5).

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