Staff Box: On Sexual Assault Data

Julia Herbst, Robin Wasserman, and Adiel Kaplan

We are writing to set the record straight in response to a letter to the editors regarding the article, “Oberlin Third Highest in Reported Sexual Offense Among Similar Schools,” (The Oberlin Review, Nov. 9, 2012) which included several false allegations about the story. The letter to the editors, written by Lucy Gelb, OC ’12, in the Nov. 16 edition, makes various assertaions which stem from misinterpretations of the article and a lack of knowledge of the full scope of the Review‘s research for this story.

Here is a more detailed explanation of our reporting process on these counts:

  • The statistical analysis which ranked Oberlin third highest among 25 similar schools used the U.S. News college rankings to obtain a list of the nation’s top private liberal arts colleges. Gelb mistakenly asserts that the article erred by including Oberlin, as the school is tied for 26th on the U.S. News website. She failed to account for the fact that the U.S. News list of liberal arts colleges includes publicly funded U.S. military institutions, such as the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy, which are both ranked above Oberlin. When public institutions are removed, Oberlin is tied for 24th.
  • Gelb challenges the fact that Oberlin would be ranked second instead of third in number of reported sexual offenses when additional numbers from Oberlin’s own report not included in the national database were added to the tally. She argues that other schools might also have higher self-reported statistics. Prior to publication, the Review checked reports from each school ranked among the top 10 and found that Oberlin was the only school among them which reported more incidents in its campus crime report than the national database.
  • Gelb also challenges the fact that the data in the analysis was not adjusted for school size (as was stated in the article). This was an editorial decision made by the Review prior to publication, after an analysis of the data both adjusted and unadjusted for size. Accounting for size tends have more significance when comparing a small school like Oberlin to a much larger university. For example, Arizona State University and the University of Texas at Austin reported about the same number of offenses as Oberlin (22 and 24 respectively compared to Oberlin’s 21), yet they are roughly 20 times its size. Although it is true that Oberlin was the largest of the schools in the Review‘s analysis, the range in size of the popularly referenced U.S. News list is relatively minor (500 to 5,000 students). Even when looked at on a per capita basis, Oberlin ranks 7th in sexual offenses among the leading 25 private liberal arts colleges — still in the top third for number of reports.

The letter seemed to ignore the larger points of the article: that campus sexual offense policy processes are fraught with problems, that sexual offense policies, including on our own campus, are attracting controversy, that underreporting is a rampant problem, and that Oberlin has a high rate of reported incidents among the top liberal arts schools. It is our  hope that the Review‘s reporting sparks dialogue on campus not about the smaller details of a data analysis, but about the more important issues surrounding sexual offense policies on campus.