In May of 2014, the long-simmering crisis of sexual assault on college campuses hit a boiling point after several students at Columbia University filed a complaint with the federal government alleging the university systematically mishandled their sexual assault cases. Columbia, they claimed, wielded a biased campus disciplinary process to evade its legal responsibility to fully investigate and punish alleged perpetrators. The goal of the complaint wasn't just to seek justice for those victims, but to ensure universities are held to a higher standard of transparency regarding the nature of sexual violence on their campuses.
"No school wanted to talk about this and scare away prospective students," activist Dana Bolger told the New York Times. "We've hit them where it hurts: their reputations."
But, according to a new analysis from the National Bureau of Economic Research, that "hit" appears to have been little more than a glancing blow: Despite the uptick in federal investigations into the mishandling of sexual assault on college campuses since the Obama administration signed its "Dear Colleague" letter—a directive to the publicly funded universities to more aggressively pursue sexual assault cases—it appears the associated public scrutiny did little to affect Columbia's public standing when it comes to applications or donations.
The "Dear Colleague" letter, issued by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in 2011, mandated that universities' judicial bodies work faster and handle more sexual assault cases, as well as "use the lowest possible standard of proof, a preponderance of evidence," as the Washington Post reported. After the letter was issued, the Department of Education opened 458 Title IX investigations in response to complaints from students between 2011 and 2017, a major uptick from the "handful" of schools under federal scrutiny for their failure to aggressively pursue sexual assault allegations, as the NBER report put it.
The public scrutiny associated with those hundreds of investigations during the "Dear Colleague" period, a scrutiny that in some ways peaked with the May of 2014 complaint against Columbia, didn't do much to hurt colleges' reputations. Instead, the data from the Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System indicated to researchers that investigations into university mishandling of sexual violence actually increased both applications and enrollment among male and female students. Other measures of reputation also remained stable: The authors found that federal Title IX investigations "appear to have no effect on student retention, as the enrollment of continuing students is unaffected ... no effects on rates of degree completion ... [and] no detectable effects on donations."
This research may seem like a defeat for activists looking to call attention to alleged wrongdoings on the universities' part, but it also offers a new incentive to college administrators primarily responsible for their institution's financial and legal solvency. Among the post-"Dear Colleague" sagas is the high-profile 2011 Title IX complaints at Yale University that revealed a "culture of silence" in the administration around sexual assault—a culture born from a fear that the cases would harm the school's reputation. For "prestigious" universities, any sort of investigation isn't a learning experience, but a potential threat to its financial security. As Caroline Kitchener wrote in The Atlantic, "more transparency means more recorded victims."
If sunlight is the best disinfectant, then might fully stepping into the sun bring virtue in accountability? Indeed, the NBER research indicates that some significant negative effects caused by Office for Civil Rights investigations only arise "before they are actually opened" by the agency, a trend suggesting that, at least in the public's mind, a Title XI investigation is seen as a solution to an existing problem of sexual violence—regardless of the actual efficacy of an investigation.
But according to the NBER research, it's a matter of publicity: A Title IX investigation is still a major moment of media exposure for a national university, and that comes with fringe benefits. From the NBER report:
Because the impacts on applications are immediate, it is unlikely that they are driven by major positive changes at the schools under investigation—it would likely take time to implement such changes and for prospective students to learn about them. And because these immediate effects on applications are present for both males and females, it is unlikely that they are driven by impacts on perceptions about school safety, which we would expect to be more important for female prospective students than male prospective students. It seems more likely that the effects are driven by salience. In particular, the attention generated by an OCR Title IX investigation—though negative—may cause the school to enter the consideration sets of more students when they are choosing where to apply.
Perhaps the lack of consequences from a negative media moment will induce more universities to take more aggressive investigative measures regarding sexual violence on their campuses. But this study is also a reminder that, for universities, all publicity is good publicity.