How one survey on sexual assaults at universities sparked a research career

12 Feb 2020

Dr Bill Flack, professor and co-chair in the Department of Psychology, Bucknell University, Pennsylvania. Image: Fulbright Ireland

Dr Bill Flack of Bucknell University is trying to better understand the factors that lead to the major issue of sexual assaults at universities.

Dr Bill Flack has a BA from the University of Maine, an MA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from Clark University, all in psychology. He also undertook a postdoctoral fellowship in the National Center for PTSD at the Boston VA Medical Center.

For more than 19 years, he has taught critical clinical and community psychologies, and conducted research on gender-based violence and psychological trauma. He is a professor and co-chair in the Department of Psychology at Bucknell University, Pennsylvania.

Flack co-founded the UK and Irish ‘Respect for Safe Relationships: Education and Training’ network during a previous Fulbright scholarship at Ulster University. More recently, he has collaborated in teaching and research on gender-based violence during a Fulbright scholarship at NUI Galway.

‘Although we know a lot about sexual assault in universities, so far our efforts to eliminate the problem have not worked’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

My interest in research on sexual assault among university students began in a seminar I was teaching about psychological trauma almost 20 years ago.

Students in that seminar perceived a discrepancy between what the research said about rates of assault, and the rates being reported by universities. We decided to do a survey to help explain this discrepancy, and that’s been my research focus ever since.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I’ve been doing research surveys on sexual assault among universities students since 2001. I’m a member of the Administrator-Researcher Campus Climate Consortium (ARC3), a US national group of sexual assault researchers and university administrators, which produced a research-based, no-cost survey of sexual assault and related matters in the university context.

I also work with colleagues in the UK and Ireland on this research, having had Fulbright scholarships in 2015 and 2019.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Although we know a lot about sexual assault in universities, so far our efforts to eliminate the problem have not worked.

Along with a focus on individuals, we need to start looking at the social, structural and community-level factors that facilitate sexual assault in this context.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Many people don’t know that sexual assault among university students is associated with a range of serious consequences, including problems with academic performance and mental health. A substantial percentage of assaulted students develop severe forms of psychological distress, and many of them do not seek assistance.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Sexual assault among university students is not simply a matter of ‘unwanted’ or ‘regretted’ sex.

It’s a serious violation of personal integrity. We need to do a better job of teaching the public about this problem, and a better job of teaching students about consent and social pressures to conform to the expectations of others.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Most of the research on this topic has been done in the US – although some has been done in Europe, mostly in the UK, Ireland and Germany. We should be helping researchers in other countries to investigate this problem and working collaboratively to see what works in solving it.

Who is your unsung hero of science and why?

Prof Mary Koss is the pioneer in this field of research. She did the first major study of US university sexual assault back in the 1980s, and has continued to pursue the issue to the present day.

Although the problem is widely acknowledged today, it was not when Koss began her work. Her perseverance, often in the face of misogynist backlash, is a model for those of us who continue to work on this issue.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.