MIT Is Taking New Steps to Combat Sexual Assaults on Campus

Students will be required to complete a new online training course about harassment and violence.

MIT building photo

MIT photo via Margaret Burdge

As students get ready to leave for the summer—and others say goodbye to the school for good—MIT has promised that when the new year starts next fall, officials will have improved approaches to combatting and handling sexual assaults on campus.

In a letter addressed to faculty, staff, and students that was sent out Tuesday, regarding sexual-assault prevention efforts, MIT Chancellor Cindy Barnhart said based on community input collected over the last several months, the school is already planning “more and better” education programs for the fall. “We have identified a number of areas where we need to gather data, take action or both,” Barnhart said, adding that so far she has gathered that people are “eager for practical strategies to prevent sexual assault and change environments that encourage unhealthy and unsafe behavior.”

Based on initial findings, Barnhart said the school would implement immediate changes beginning in the fall that will include a mandatory online educational component for all first-year graduate and undergraduate students before they arrive on campus. The online tool will cover subjects like sexual harassment, assault, interpersonal violence, and stalking. Staff members will also be subject to taking the online training program.

The school has also promised to require incoming students to attend an interactive seminar during orientation in the fall that explores questions around consent, communication, healthy sexuality, and bystander intervention. Barnhart said this discussion would be an “enhanced version of what they receive now.”

Tweaks to the school’s outreach and response to sexual assault reports, as well as improvements to overall education will supplement these improvements.

In February, MIT President L. Rafael Reif asked the chancellor to take charge and address the issue of sexual assaults on campus after an anonymous letter written by a former student, which was printed in the school’s paper, The Tech, brought attention to the school’s mishandling of an alleged assault.

While Reif said at the time that the school has done a lot to raise awareness about the issue, he viewed it as a good time to “improve and expand our community efforts further still.”

Barnhart said that the school sent out an online survey to students this spring— 30 percent of undergraduates and graduate students have responded so far—and the data gathered from that questionnaire will be rolled into the entire overhaul of the school’s sexual assault prevention program. “Now, for the first time, we will have solid, baseline data about the prevalence of sexual assault, attitudes around it, and obstacles to progress,” Barnhart said in the letter to the community.

She said she was “especially touched” during her research within the community by all of the students who had the courage to share with her their thoughts and experiences around curbing the problem of sexual assault. “And I am impressed with all the student groups that are instituting practical changes to help prevent and address the problem of sexual assault in our community. In this sensitive, important work, I am thankful to have so many brave, committed partners,” said Barnhart.