Washington Watch: Congress eyes biennial campus climate survey

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As part of a sweeping update of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Congress is moving to require that institutions of higher education administer biennially a new survey designed to obtain information regarding postsecondary student experiences with domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking.

Under the pending legislation, the mandate would require the U.S. education secretary to lead an interagency effort that would require colleges and universities that receive federal assistance to ensure, to the maximum extent practicable, that an “adequate, random, and representative” sample size of students (as determined by the secretary) completes the survey tool.

The U.S. Education Department (ED) would generate the tool, in consultation with other parties, including institutions of higher education. 

Expected action

Legislation with the survey requirement has been passed by the House and is included in bipartisan Senate legislation, S. 3623 (See Section 1507). The Senate bill is due be considered on the floor later this month and is expected to pass (the provisions described in this article reflect the Senate’s language). Because of its bipartisan nature, the Senate’s version of VAWA reauthorization is expected to be the one that heads to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature – and that is deemed likely. 

The required survey questions cast a wide net. Very generally, it is designed to determine the number of incidents as specified in law, as well as some aspects of their effect on those involved with them, and their subsequent handling within institutional and legal contexts. It also aims to determine aspects of campus climate. Questions are to be trauma-informed.

Similar surveys

All survey data is to be anonymous, though colleges would have to publish the resulting information on their websites. Institutions could add their own questions to the survey, subject to approval by the secretary. This is particularly important since many institutions of higher education already undertake campus climate surveys. In addition, more than 10 states also prescribe such surveys. The integration of these surveys with the potential federal mandate is unclear.

The legislation would require ED to issue a report every two years compiling institutional data. 

If the survey requirement is ultimately enacted into law, much will hinge on how it is implemented by the executive branch, though, as indicated, several of the survey’s elements are quite specific.

Title IX

On a related topic, ED is expected to issue next month a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on Title IX as it relates to sexual harassment and assault. This will immediately fasten the attention of campuses across the country.

About the Author

David Baime
David Baime is senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.