Abstract: Predicting Campus Sexual Assault Reforms: The Role of Decoupling (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Predicting Campus Sexual Assault Reforms: The Role of Decoupling

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Liberty Ballroom O, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Carrie Moylan, PhD, Assistant Professor, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Amy Hammock, PhD, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY
Melanie Carlson, MSW, Research Assistant, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Seth Rowles, MSW, Graduate Student, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Background: Institutions of higher education have been engaged in on-going policy reform related to campus sexual assault.  Research suggests that, while campuses generally are more in compliance with federal legislation than they were ten years ago, the range and types of reforms vary across institutions.  Institutional theory provides a potential framework for explaining how pressures external to institutions shape organizational behavior.  Attempts to manage external pressures can lead to decoupling, in which institutions appear to respond to external pressures on the surface, while protecting themselves from fully implementing changes.  In this study we hypothesize that campuses with higher rates of decoupling will have instituted fewer reforms than less decoupled institutions.  Also, we hypothesize that decoupled campuses waited until the pressures were greater to initiate reforms, leading to later implementation of reforms than less decoupled campuses.

Methods: Individuals involved in campus sexual assault reform completed an online survey advertised on professional listservs and sent directly to potential participants. The survey included a five-item scale of decoupling, and asked whether the campus had engaged in each of 28 reforms, and if so during which of three time periods (pre-2011, between 2011-2015, and in the 2016-2017 current academic year).  The sample (n=155) included student affairs staff and administrators, Title IX officers, advocates and prevention staff from 24 states.  Participants were from a range of campuses including public (60.4%), private not-for-profit (36.9%), 4 year (85.6%), 2 year (13.5%), schools with less than 5000 students (43.6%), campuses with over 10000 students (40%), research universities (32.6%) and small liberal arts colleges (31.2%).   

Results:  Regression analyses were conducted to predict the total number of reforms, as well as the number of reforms for each time period.  In addition to decoupling, campus characteristics were included to account for other factors that may influence the adoption of reforms.  All regression models were significant, with R2 values between .14 and .43.  As hypothesized, decoupling was significantly related to the number of reforms in the early (B= -.22, SE= .51, p<.05) and late (B=.48, SE=.60, p<.001) time periods.  Decoupling did not significantly predict the total number of reforms, however.  Factors that significantly predicted the number of reforms included whether it was a 2 year or 4 year institution, whether the institution has or had a federal grant for campus sexual assault, whether the campus had been involved in civil lawsuits from respondents or claimants, and the campus priority on due process and on victim centered approaches.

Implications: These findings suggest that more decoupled campuses wait longer to implement reforms, but that the number of reforms they ultimately adopt is not significantly different from less decoupled campuses.  This suggests that pressures such as federal regulatory oversight, lawsuits, media attention, and shifting social norms may help convince institutions to engage in reform. Directions for future research and implications for understanding reform efforts in an era of decreasing federal oversight will be discussed.