May 2, 2017

From SHIFT, to Columbia and Barnard undergrads: Thank you!

Two and a half years ago we started one of the most ambitious research projects we’ve ever undertaken. Our charge was to develop a better scientific understanding of sexual violence, to capture what has been happening on our own campus, and to develop recommendations for policies to prevent sexual violence. We gathered an interdisciplinary team from across the campus, with expertise in anthropology, psychiatry, sociology, adolescent medicine, social work, psychology, and biostatistics—and designed three major studies. In launching SHIFT (the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation), we were fortunate to have generous funding from the Office of President Bollinger. It has been the perfect set up: substantial resources, high-level administrative support to help navigate some of the challenges of working on such complex topics, and the ability to conduct research with complete scientific independence.

Our mandate has been to understand, and create new ways to prevent, sexual violence. However, unlike many prior studies, we started from the premise that understanding sexual violence requires both intensive study of unwanted sexual experiences and attention to how consensual sex fits into students’ broader lives. In the ethnography, diary, and survey, students shared a wide range of experiences of assault—but they also told us about their wants, desires, hopes, and friendships; what they’re learning in class; how they manage stress, socialize, and celebrate with one another; how alcohol, substance use, sleep, and living together in this city are a part of their experiences, and how the written and unwritten rules of the institutions of which they’re a part influence their actions.

One of the best and most critical decisions was to assemble an undergraduate advisory board who met with our team regularly. They met with us almost every Monday from 8-10AM, and shared “life at Columbia” as they experienced it. The vast majority of these students are graduating this month. If we’ve managed to capture the life of students at Columbia, Barnard, and GS, it’s in no small part because this group were our guides.

The students who participated in our research, of course, were also critical to SHIFT’s success. They trusted us with their stories, sharing their happiness and their struggles. In extensive interviews, they volunteered information about their families, their time at Columbia, and their sexual experiences. Others treated our survey as civic responsibility—an astonishing 1,651 respondents answered questions about mental health, sexual health, and experiences with sexual violence. The response rate of 66% is rare in this field, raising the bar for all future scholarship. Taken together, the data we collected—151 in-depth interviews; 17 focus groups; hundreds of hours of observation; 1,651 survey responses, and more than 17,000 responses from the 420 students who participated in the 60-day diary study—amount to one of the most scientifically rigorous and complete portraits of undergraduate life ever compiled.

We are well into the process of data analysis, and have planned many academic publications—but our work is hardly done. From the very beginning of this project our plan was not just to produce knowledge, but also to help develop policies that would improve the lives of all within our community, and to advance sexual assault prevention outside of Columbia as well.

In the years to come we’re going to be asking even more. We’re going to need help, feedback, push-back, and trust. While there’s no small degree of cynicism and skepticism within our community, our experience tells a different story—one where alumni, staff, faculty, and students all joined together to help us tackle the incredibly important issue of sexual violence. We will be outlining lessons from the SHIFT project, and in the months and years ahead we will continue to draw on this work to think—with our community—about how we can work together to make Columbia a safer, stronger, and warmer place– both to learn and to live.

-SHIFT Executive Committee

Jennifer Hirsch (Sociomedical Sciences), Claude Mellins (Psychiatry and Sociomedical Sciences), Shamus Khan (Sociology), Leigh Reardon (Project Director, Sociomedical Sciences), John Santelli (Population and Family Health) and Patrick Wilson (Sociomedical Sciences).