The survey polled thousands of students from across Cornell's student body, and is required by New York State.

Courtesy of Cornell University

The survey polled thousands of students from across Cornell's student body, and is required by New York State.

October 20, 2019

Survey Finds ‘Alarming’ Rates of Sexual Misconduct at Cornell as Leaders Struggle for Solutions

Print More

Correction appended. 

Little has changed in the trends of sexual misconduct on campus since 2017, a University survey shows, finding that half of respondents have experienced some form of sexual harassment during their time at Cornell — with disproportionate rates based on gender, and frequently in situations including Greek life.

The biannual survey, last run in 2017, charted sexual harassment rates on campus as marginally in decline since 2017, down around five percentage points from 55%.

Since entering Cornell, 68.2% of undergraduate women and 51.3% of undergraduate men reported experiencing some form of sexual or gender-based harassment, according to the 2019 survey results. In 2017 these values were 70.5% of undergraduate women and 54% of undergraduate men.

The survey is conducted every two years, and overall results were sent to students via email.

Alicia Wang / Sun Graphics Editor

The survey is conducted every two years, and overall results were sent to students via email.

Among TGQN students — transgender, genderqueer, questioning and not listed —  however, sexual harassment rates increased by almost 10 percentage points from 72.2% in 2017 to 81.3% in 2019.

The survey received 2,247 responses from across the undergraduate and graduate student bodies.

Additionally, more than a quarter of undergraduate women reported an experience meeting Cornell’s definition of sexual assault since entering Cornell, an increase from 22.5% in 2017. For the majority of that demographic, the most common location for the “most serious incident of nonconsensual sexual contact” was an on-campus fraternity house.

Chantelle Cleary, Cornell’s Title IX Coordinator and Director of Institutional Equity, noted existing education programs through Cornell Health and the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life. These include an annual ConsentEd training and a one-time mandatory training on bystander intervention given to new members.

“We are continually assessing these issues and the programming available for our students,” Cleary said.

In 2019, 22.6% of undergraduate women responded that a fraternity house was the setting of their most serious incident of sexual violence in 2019, closely in line with the findings of two years prior.

There was a large gender disparity between the proportion of students who reported incidents of harassment.

Alicia Wang / Sun Graphics Editor

There was a large gender disparity between the proportion of students who reported incidents of harassment.

“I think it’s inherent to patriarchal systems,” Maya Cutforth ’20, Panhellenic Council president, told The Sun.

Cutforth said it is necessary to have a “broader conversation” around why social events primarily occur at fraternity houses and fraternity-affiliated properties. Sororities at Cornell are prohibited by their national associations from hosting events, she said.

Cristian Gonzalez ’20, Interfraternity Council president, attributed the rates of sexual harassment to what he called “structural inequalities in how these parties are set up,” with fraternities serving as the host. “Sororities don’t really have much agency,” he added.

Cutforth said that some sororities — she declined to specify which chapters — will not attend social events at fraternities with sexual violence allegations against their members.

At Panhellenic chapter president meetings, Cutforth tries “to cultivate a space where presidents can say, like, ‘This thing happened to one of our members… and we’re choosing not to socialize with them,’ and I think that’s really valuable,” she said. “Fraternities wouldn’t hold mixers if sororities didn’t come to them.”

Gonzalez expressed support for this type of collective action, but added that he found this practice “largely naive.”

“I feel that sororities will stop mixing with a certain fraternity … maybe for a short while, and then they’ll just keep doing it for reasons of social capital,” he said. Gonzales explained how sororities may feel internal pressure to continue mixing with what he called “top tier fraternities.”

Gonzalez continued, “You get people who want to join IFC chapters for a lot of reasons … some of them are people we may not necessarily want in our chapters, some may not rush with the right reasons or the right motives … and they end up causing problems.”

And at fraternity parties, sober monitors designed in part as active bystanders, “aren’t always sober,” Gonzalez said.

Off-campus residences represented the second most common location (19.7%) for undergraduate women’s most serious experienced incident of sexual violence, and represent the most common location for sexual violence (24.2%) if the demographic is expanded to include all students.

Off-campus, Cornell programming may have a limited reach. Cleary, the Title IX coordinator, emphasized the skills taught in the bystander training process.

“It is our hope that students use the tools and knowledge gained from this training wherever they may be,” she said.

Nina Cummings, victim advocate and sexual violence prevention program director at Cornell’s Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, called the data “alarming.” She urged students to observe what is occurring on campus, and to “consider the collective impact of what their peers may be experiencing.”

The survey also revealed that only 24.4% of students were aware of Cummings’ position: Victim advocates are dedicated to providing catered support to those affected by harmful, threatening, or other violent incidents. For comparison, 55.2% of students were aware of the Title IX coordinator’s services.

“People don’t think about the resources available to them until they need help,”said Laura Santacrose, assistant director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell Health. 95.9% of students were aware of Cornell Health’s services, something Santacrose expressed optimism in: “If students start at Cornell Health, they will find their way to the services they need.”

Student most often disclose experiences of sexual harassment to a friend, according to the survey results.

“Fewer than 1 in 5 students who experienced nonconsensual sexual contact reached out to a Cornell- or community-based resource to talk about that experience,” a coalition of university leaders including Ryan Lombardi, Vice President for Student and Campus Life said in a statement. “We must continue to inform students about the care and support that is available to them on campus and in the community.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this article inaccurately attributed statements by Title IX Coordinator Chantelle Cleary to a Cornell University spokesperson; the statements were made by Cleary. 

An earlier version also misspelled the name of Cristian Gonzalez ’20.

Members of the Cornell Community may consult with the Victim Advocate by calling 607-255-1212, and with Cornell Health by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. The Tompkins County-based Advocacy Center is available at 607.277.5000. For additional resources, visit health.cornell.edu/services/victim-advocacy.