Two HKS students compile facts to help address the issue of sexual assault on campus.

By Katie Gibson
April 5, 2018


Conversations around advocacy tend to focus on qualitative experiences: highlighting the narratives of those who have suffered injustice, and arguing for a change in norms or policy. But it can be difficult, especially given the broad range of human experience, to gather quantitative data to augment those narratives.

As colleges and universities in Massachusetts examine their policies regarding sexual assault and harassment, two Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) students and one alumna are working to gather both stories and numbers. They are involved in the creation and passage of a bill to create a flexible, useful survey instrument to help institutions collect and make use of information about their students’ experiences.

Through a grant funded by the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP), Elyse Voegeli MPP 2019 and Cici Coquillette MPP/JD 2019 have gained some real-world policy experience in their efforts. They worked together to produce a fact sheet accompanying House Resolve H.4159 (originally Bill H.2998), which is under consideration by the Massachusetts state legislature. The resolution would require all institutions of higher learning in the state to conduct campus climate surveys on sexual assault. The bill also would establish a task force to develop a recommended survey instrument for widespread use.

Members of WAPPP's From Harvard Square to the Oval Office program

“Lots of universities have already done this, but it’s a challenge to compare the data, because they’re asking different questions,” Voegeli explains. She acknowledges the need for institutions to tailor their surveys to their particular campus communities, but points out the value of gathering comparable data across schools. The fact sheet’s recommendations call for both flexibility and standardized questions in the creation of a new survey instrument.

Both Voegeli and Coquillette have previous experience working on this issue. Voegeli previously worked at the Tufts Labor Lab, where she managed randomized controlled trials to evaluate programs in global garment factories aimed at improving labor rights. The research focused in particular on women’s empowerment and sexual harassment in the factory setting.

Coquillette has been involved with the HKS Working Group on Sexual Assault Prevention and Education. “This project has been a way to re-ground myself in policy and to professionalize my personal advocacy,” she says. Coquillette also spent a summer working with Rise Up, part of the Public Health Institute in Oakland, Calif., to advance gender equality and sexual and reproductive health.

“This project has been the highlight of my HKS experience so far,” Voegeli says. “It’s been great to take what I’m learning in the classroom and tailor it to my research interest.”

The fact sheet lays out the history of sexual assault climate surveys in Massachusetts and outlines the need for a standardized survey instrument. It makes recommendations for a task force to develop the survey, referencing similar bills that have passed in Maryland, New York, and Louisiana. It also offers recommendations for survey design and implementation, as well as sharing data from surveys already conducted by Massachusetts colleges and universities, including Harvard.

“We talked to a number of Title IX offices in the state,” Coquillette says. “There was a real sense that we’re all on the same team. Once we have a better idea what’s going on, we can gain a better understanding of how to fix it.”

The students were eager to dive into the policy work, but have enjoyed an additional HKS connection: the bill’s lead sponsor is Representative Lori Ehrlich MC/MPA 2005. Ehrlich, one of the first alumni of WAPPP’s From Harvard Square to the Oval Office program, has served as a state rep for 10 years, and has led the effort to ensure that the bill comes to a vote.

“We were thrilled to find that this was Rep. Ehrlich’s bill,” says Coquillette. “She and Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier co-chair the Sexual Assault Working Group within the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators and have done phenomenal work in this space.” The students worked closely with Ehrlich as they created the fact sheet, and got an inside glimpse of the process required to move a bill along in the House. 

This spring, the bill has made its way through the Joint Committee on Higher Education to the House Committee on Ways and Means. If it passes through the legislature, Coquillette and Voegeli will write a policy report that expands on their fact sheet. The bill will create a task force to head up the survey creation and data storage, and the policy report will provide key recommendations and insights for the task force.

“I think we’re in a unique moment in the national conversation around sexual assault,” Voegeli says. “This isn’t the first time this issue has arisen, but it’s certainly garnering more public attention.” The bill, she hopes, will help carry the conversation forward and make good use of data to diagnose the problems on Massachusetts campuses and work toward proposing solutions.

Coquillette notes that this bill would be a law that aims “to create cultural change.” She, too, has hopes for the role of universities in addressing issues of sexual assault, harassment, consent, and safety. “My experience working in the campus space has made me believe that colleges can help shape these norms,” she says.

As survivors of sexual assault and harassment claim their experiences and tell their stories, Voegeli and Coquillette see a parallel with their work: owning and claiming their expertise in both advocacy and quantitative analysis.

“On this project, we are not only students; we’re independent policy experts,” says Coquillette. “Making use of our own expertise, and being able to claim that, has been really gratifying."