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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Shifting Perspective

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

A look at new research project on campus, and why PrezBo is footing the bill.

By Channing Prend

“Last weekend I was standing in line to get into 1020…” These words could have been uttered by any number of students at Columbia, but, in fact, they came from distinguished sociology professor Shamus Khan.

Khan is conducting an ethnographic study of undergraduate student life as part of the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation, a new research initiative funded by the Office of the President. SHIFT, which was launched last spring by Mailman School of Public Health professors Jennifer Hirsch and Claude Mellins, aims to study the community-level factors that influence sexual health at Columbia.

The ethnographic part of this research involves, as Hirsch calls it, “hanging out with students in their native habitat.” While Khan recognized that his presence at Mel’s or the Heights could seem “a bit creepy,” he maintained that there is a lot to learn from seeing the social spaces in which students interact.

Some of the questions that Khan said he considers when navigating around sweaty, drunk students include: How do people enter this space? Does anybody come here alone? How are people acting? How are people experiencing their contact with one another? In order to answer these questions he makes observations and takes notes. “I find it hard to talk to students in that context because I’m old and irrelevant,” Khan mentioned. But he said that the value of these trips to bars is that they provide him with context to draw on later in one-on-one interviews.

As for his findings so far, Khan remarked, “I’ve been hanging out at bars every weekend since the start of the year and to be brutally honest, it’s not that interesting.” It doesn’t take a sociological study to discover Cannon’s sucks.

Khan clarified that he is not simply “hunting for sexual spaces.” In addition to visiting local bars on weekend evenings, he also makes observations in Lerner, JJ’s, and Butler. “Not everyone in the Columbia community goes out to bars,” Khan said. “There are a lot of people in the library at 11:30 on a Saturday night!”

There is more to the research program than Khan furiously scribbling notes among drunk freshmen, however. SHIFT has three main components: Khan’s ethnography, a daily diary study, and policy drafting. The diary study forms the quantitative component of the research. Students are paid in Flex to fill out a daily survey with questions about many aspects of student life beyond sex such as mood, stress, substance use, and health behaviors. “We’re trying to get at the student experience from a lot of different angles,” Hirsch said.

In order to more accurately capture the “student experience,” the researchers assembled an Undergraduate Advisory Board (UAB) of 18 students who were chosen by an open application process last spring. According to Hirsch, “we had all kinds of criteria for the dimensions of diversity that we sought to maximize.” These dimensions included race, gender, sexuality, and involvement in campus groups.

UAB member Robert Holland, CC ’17, said he’s happy with the diversity of the group. “Obviously 18 people can’t represent this entire campus,” he said. “But I think they did a good job of picking people who are involved in a huge range of different things at Columbia.”

The UAB meets once a week to discuss aspects of the study with the researchers. According to Holland, this could be as broad as a discussion about campus culture or as specific as the phrasing of interview questions (“They want to find the happy medium between ‘Did you have intercourse last night?’ and ‘Do you have a bae?’”).

The UAB is also apparently used to provide party intel. During our interview, Holland got a text to the UAB GroupMe from one of the graduate students working on the project. “He wants to know what’s going on tonight,” Holland laughed. “They’re trying to meet people in a natural way that’s not like, Hi I’m here studying you on a Saturday night.”

The third component of SHIFT is what the researchers are calling “policy translation.” After collecting data for the rest of this academic year, they plan to use their findings to make concrete policy proposals to the Office of the President, which is funding the program. Hirsch said she hopes they will be finished with a final set of recommendations to the University administration by June 2017.

“We want SHIFT to make a difference at Columbia,” Hirsch stated. “So it’s very important that we translate our research into policies that can prevent sexual violence and promote sexual health.”

What might these policy proposals actually look like? Hirsch says it’s too early to tell. “We want to be led by student experiences and what we find,” she stated. But given that the funding comes from the Office of the President, does this compromise the integrity of the research? Everyone involved in SHIFT is careful to downplay the administration’s involvement in the study. Hirsch and Khan both sternly maintained the program’s intellectual independence. “That’s the whole point of being tenured faculty!” Hirsch exclaimed.

“We’re completely independent in terms of design and implementation,” Khan said. “The body that approved our research design is the research ethics board, which treated us as if the money had come from anywhere.”

The UAB members were similarly adamant about the project’s autonomy. According to Holland, no administrators have been present at any UAB meetings. “I would not be comfortable talking about sex at 8 a.m. with Suzanne Goldberg,” he remarked.

UAB member and University Senator Sean Ryan, CC ’17, said the study’s credibility relies on this distance from the administration. “One of our jobs as UAB members is to let people know that this really is separate from the administration and that we have students on the inside that are making sure it’s separate,” he added.

Still, Hirsch did note that there are some benefits to having the President’s backing. She mentioned that the Office of the President helped the researchers get an exemption from Title IX mandatory reporting, a federal law that requires faculty members to report all cases of sexual assault that they become aware of. Hirsch also recognized that administrative compliance is necessary to make a real impact. “We need their support in order to make recommendations that are viable, useful and meaningful to the university,” she stated.

It certainly makes sense that those involved in SHIFT would try to distance themselves from the administration’s other misguided attempts to handle sexual assault like the arts option of last year’s Sexual Respect Requirement and Dining’s Sexual Violence Prevention cake. SHIFT is, however, unique because it examines the larger institutional context that influences sexuality.

Hirsch and Khan also both have aspirations to write a book about the study. Khan said he hopes SHIFT will influence the way sexual violence is discussed at Columbia and on college campuses around the country. “We’re trying to push some of the literature into a more social and organizational understanding of how things like sexual violence happen,” he said.

But how normal is it for faculty-led research initiatives to be funded by the Office of the President? In a typically evasive response, University spokesman Robert Hornsby replied, “There are a number of University initiatives, including scholarly endeavors across our undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools, that have been launched with Presidential support. Recent examples range from individual projects like Eric Foner’s research seminar on Columbia’s history with slavery to the President’s Global Innovation Fund.”

Perhaps it’s a sign of positive change that the administration is funding SHIFT, whether their intent is good PR or promoting scholarship. Ryan said the source of funding shows that Columbia is responding to the reality of this issue on campus. “I think that creating SHIFT has been the best sign of forward progress that the university has made in terms of responding to the issue of sexual assault on Columbia’s campus,” he added.

Khan is optimistic as well, but stressed the importance of student involvement. “We’re working hard to enlist as many students as possible in this process,” Khan said. “Because ultimately the recommendations are not for just the administration, they’re for the community, and they’re for the students.”

It remains to be seen how successful this program will be. But for now, the fact that we’re shifting the conversation away from individuals and towards the cultural and institutional influences on sexual violence is a step in the right direction.


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