Mark Abramson

Columbia University researchers are "spying" on undergraduates, the headline of a New York Post story asserted. The article, which appeared beside a page-length photo of Beyoncé cradling a chicken, criticized the methods of a new study of students’ sex lives. How the story came to be highlights the ethical and communications challenges facing the university’s up-close research project — and why that project might change our understanding of campus sexual violence.

The story starts with Erin Mizraki, who in 2015 was a Barnard College freshman covering sexual-assault activism for the Columbia Daily Spectator. Columbia had been under a national spotlight the year before, when Emma Sulkowicz protested how the university had dealt with a sexual-assault complaint by lugging around a 50-pound mattress. So it was significant when Mizraki and her editors learned that Columbia hoped to improve assault prevention by investigating the social and sex lives of its undergraduates.

As part of the project, called the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation, or Shift, ethnographers had started to observe students at locations such as sports events, club meetings, dorm parties, and neighborhood bars. A sophomore spotted Shamus Khan, a sociologist known for his popular introductory course, taking notes one Wednesday night in a booth at a bar called 1020. How, Mizraki began asking, did students feel about being watched?

That October, Mizraki published their responses in a Spectator article describing how some students worried about being observed drinking underage, or about being watched by a researcher with whom they might have to interact later in class. Her story balanced such concerns with a discussion of the numerous steps researchers were taking to safeguard students’ privacy and confidentiality. For example, the ethnographers refrained from recording any students’ names in their field notes.

Two days later, the Post published a rewrite of her article, nuances buried, under the headline, "‘Spying’ Prof on Campus: Columbia Party Kids Balk." All this watching students, the Post story began, was "creeping them out." At a time when skewed news can easily go viral, especially in a media capital like New York, it was the kind of publicity that might harm a sensitive research project.

"When we were writing the story about Shift, it made a lot of sense to write it from that angle," Mizraki says. "But, I think upon reflection — and now that they’ve actually done the study — I don’t know if I would have done that again. Because there were just so many measures taken to make it an ethical study."

Two years later, the Columbia project is once again generating buzz, as researchers embark on a tightly managed rollout of their findings.

In November, the Shift team publishedthe first of some 10 initial papers, reporting the results of a survey on the prevalence of sexual assault and risk factors among Barnard and Columbia students. Then, in December, news emerged that Khan and a colleague, Jennifer S. Hirsch, had sold a book about the project, described as "the most rigorous study of sexual assault ever conducted," to Norton. The social scientists would examine "the often hidden forces of campus ecosystems that determine how and when assault happens, and why so few assaults are ever reported," according to Publishers Lunch, a book-industry newsletter.

After the 27-campus study done in 2015 by the Association of American Universities, the White House report produced in 2014 by the Obama administration, and the saturation coverage in articles and books, you might wonder what remains to be learned about college sexual assault. Answer: a lot.

"It’s almost shocking that we know so little," says Justin R. Garcia, a sex researcher and evolutionary biologist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute. He added, "We recognize there is a problem. Everyone is scrambling to do something. There’s not even close to enough data or clearly demonstrated interventions that work."

At a time of national reckoning with sexual violence, could Columbia’s study help change that?

Many of the Columbia team’s findings are still under wraps. But in December, the two lead researchers — Hirsch, a medical anthropologist, and Claude A. Mellins, a clinical psychologist — gave The Chronicle a broad overview of their study. Alexander Wamboldt, an ethnographer hired to focus on male student groups, like fraternities, also spoke with The Chronicle via Skype. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the "spying" professor episode, a Columbia communications official monitored these conversations, which took place in a 15th-floor conference room at the Mailman School of Public Health.

Shift originated in the fall of 2014, when Hirsch approached senior administrators with an idea to fill a gap in the national discussion about sexual assault. Much research involved surveying the prevalence of assault. Prevention efforts, meanwhile, emphasized changing individuals’ beliefs or expanding their knowledge. In a 2014 review of such programs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found scant evidence of their effectiveness in reducing sexual violence.

Hirsch had spent her career studying the social forces that shape sexual behaviors, such as men’s engagement in extramarital sex. She proposed a small ethnographic study in that vein focused on the organization of students’ social and sex lives: where they live and hang out, how they spend their time, how institutional policies affect them.

"What are the social factors that shape students’ regular, normal, desired, consensual sexual behavior?" Hirsch hoped to understand. "And what are the modifiable social factors that create the conditions under which sexual assault is likely to occur?"

The project came at a charged moment. That September, Sulkowicz, who now uses the pronoun "they," began carrying the mattress across campus. Sulkowicz pledged to keep carrying it until the student they said had raped them, Paul Nungesser, departed the university. Columbia, which had cleared Nungesser, found itself engulfed in fliers, meetings, litigation, open letters, political speeches, federal complaints, and student demonstrations. On the facade of a campus building, one student group projected the phrase, "Columbia protects rapists."

Against the backdrop of that controversy, every bit of it chronicled in the national media, Hirsch’s small proposal grew into a sweeping project. The faculty-run study would eventually comprise a team of ethnographers immersed in campus life for more than a year, plus in-depth student interviews and surveys — all of it backed by more than $2 million from the president’s office.

Announcing Shift in 2015, Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, said that the project would "help remedy what is a national deficit in evidence-based information relevant to creating the most effective prevention programs and policies."

"The Columbia project is more far-reaching than previous studies of this kind, says Elizabeth A. Armstrong, a sociologist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who has done ethnographic research on undergraduates’ social and sexual lives. "To my knowledge," she says, "there has not been a single university that has actually commissioned its own faculty to engage in such a comprehensive self study of its undergraduate sexual culture."

Read the full article here.