Sarah McMahon


Sarah McMahon is the associate director of the Center on Violence Against Women and Children, which is part of the School of Social Work at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Nick Romanenko

In 2014, the year marking the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, a White House task force turned to Rutgers to address another growing concern: the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses nationwide and what universities could do to stop it. Last fall, Rutgers’ Center on Violence Against Women and Children (VAWC) was invited to test and assess a campus climate survey model that had been developed by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women.

After testing the survey, which solicited 11,000 student responses at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, VAWC submitted a report this summer to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and to the Justice Department that contained findings and recommendations. The report—“Campus Climate Surveys: Lessons Learned From the Rutgers–New Brunswick Pilot Assessment”—is now part of the White House Task Force’s Resource Guide and will benefit campuses nationwide as colleges and universities conduct their own student surveys in order to better address the problem of sexual violence and arrive at “action plans.”

“There is no one-size-fits-all method for understanding sexual violence on thousands of campuses,” says Sarah McMahon, the lead researcher of the survey and associate director of VAWC, which is part of the School of Social Work, where she is an assistant professor. “Our report, however, is intended to provide lessons learned to inform the efforts of other colleges and universities that share our commitment to ending sexual violence.”

One of the key recommendations in the report was based on the reply to a question that VAWC had added to the survey. It revealed that one out of four undergraduate women reported having experienced some form of sexual violence before entering college. “One of our most important recommendations is that colleges and universities include in their surveys some questions to help them better understand the experiences of their students before they come to campus,” says McMahon SSW’97, GSNB’05. “These results are a clear signal that education, prevention, and victim-support programs need to begin long before students enter college.”

The Rutgers report also recommended that the administration of campus climate surveys be accompanied by the development of an action plan for the university that builds on the strengths of the university and clearly outlines changes in programs, policies, and services to address any gaps identified by the assessment. Action plans should work to raise awareness about support services for survivors. Only 8 percent of Rutgers–New Brunswick respondents were aware of such services, the report revealed, although the vast majority of women who knew about them found counseling very helpful. Survey results, the report recommended, can also help colleges and universities engage campus communities and raise awareness about sexual violence. Assessing the climate on campus would benefit as well from creating forums in which all students can share their voices and experiences.

Following the publication of the report, Rutgers–New Brunswick announced that the Division of Student Affairs, through its Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance, had launched a comprehensive action plan. Among the initiatives is the Revolution Starts Here: End Sexual Violence Now, a yearlong campaign of programs and events to address sexual violence.