What is SHIFT?

SHIFT is a research project that directly engages students to learn about the overall climate of sexual health at Columbia and Barnard.

How is SHIFT different from other research on this topic? 

Most research on sexual health and sexual assault focuses on individual behavior. SHIFT is exploring our community in a more holistic way, inviting students to describe their experiences about dating, sex, friendships, partying, academics, peer pressure, and more.

What does it mean that SHIFT is exempt from mandated reporting, and why does that matter?

Nothing students share will be reported to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards. The research team has been granted an exemption from the University requirement that staff and faculty report any gender-based misconduct that they learn about. This is an opportunity to open up and be as honest as you would like.

What methods will be used?

SHIFT’s study design is unique. To our knowledge, this is the first project of its kind to use ethnography, survey, and diary studies in one study to both examine sexual assault and sexual health. The different kinds of information generated by each of these components will provide an overall picture that represents the breadth of student experiences in different ways. Click on the links to learn more.

How is SHIFT different from the Sexual Respect and Citizenship Initiative, SVR, Alice Health, or Barnard Well Woman?

Those programs, among others, are already in place as part of Columbia or Barnard services and are doing prevention work or providing support to students who have faced sexual assault. SHIFT’s goal is to build on those efforts with Columbia-specific evidence to develop new approaches to promote sexual well-being and prevent sexual assault and/or to adapt current programming.

What impact will SHIFT have on my life?

SHIFT will culminate in a series of recommendations to promote consensual and satisfying sexual interactions and prevent sexual assault. Greater student participation translates into higher quality data that truly represents the breadth of Columbia and Barnard student experiences. Getting involved in our research means that recommendations will be based on actual undergraduate lived experience and alert to campus needs as you see them.

Are you looking to uncover problems?

Yes and no. We want to find out about the sexual environment on this campus. That may mean we hear a lot of student’s concerns. It may also mean we hear about respect, romance, and a climate in which healthy relationships can be sustained.

Are your recommendations only for Columbia and Barnard, or everywhere?

We think SHIFT will advance the science of sexual assault prevention everywhere. It’s a serious issue, and one that transcends the boundaries of our campus.

What happens to my info once I participate?

Everything you say will remain completely confidential and your name will never be connected to your responses. No administrators or faculty will know who participated in our research. Students who do interviews or focus groups will be given a pseudonym, and all survey and diary data is stripped of your name and identifying information for analysis.

What is SHIFT’s relationship to Columbia? Is it separate from the administration?

SHIFT is an independent study run by faculty at Columbia University Medical Center and funded by the Office of the President. Members of the administration serve as advisors, and are invested in SHIFT’s success and committed to considering the recommendations we submit. At the same time, SHIFT investigators have final say on the study design, data analysis, or development of policy recommendations. It’s the best of both worlds—SHIFT is scientifically independent, but is engaged in ongoing dialogue with administrators to ensure that our recommendations have the maximum impact.

How can I opt out?

Participation is entirely voluntary. You can decline any invitation to participate in any aspect of our research. If you see us conducting participant observations and you don’t want us to observe you, just tell us and we won’t. For what it’s worth, our goal with observations is not to record data on specific individuals but to observe behavior within the broader community.

Who’s the SHIFT team?

The SHIFT team is composed of faculty investigators from throughout the Columbia University community. Our Principal Investigators are Drs. Jennifer Hirsch and Claude Ann Mellins. Information about our other investigators and staff can be found here.

Do students have any leadership role?

Yes. SHIFT is guided by an Undergraduate Advisory Board of Columbia and Barnard students who meet with researchers every week. These students advise the projects on student life and research questions, provide feedback on strategies for data collection, and help ensure that this research resonates with students.

Is an anonymous behavioral study like this ethical?

Yes. Every aspect of SHIFT’s work, from recruitment to data collection methods to data storage, has been approved by the Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s Institutional Review Board. In addition, all SHIFT staff have undergone training in human subjects protection.

In the ethnographic research, will I know if I am interacting with a SHIFT researcher?

Members of the team who are involved with the ethnography – which is the part of the research where we are interacting with students in daily life – will always introduce themselves as researchers. The faculty leading the ethnography will not go to parties in students’ living spaces. The other SHIFT researchers will only go to parties or socialize in dorms if they are invited by students. If their presence makes anyone uncomfortable, they will leave when asked to do so.

Why should I participate in the research?

This is an unparalleled opportunity to have your experiences shape university policy. You may have specific stories you want to tell, or you may find it exciting to know you’ve had a role in a truly pioneering research project. We are not just looking for people who have experienced sexual assault, or who have even had sex! We want to capture the full range of students' experiences, both good and bad. There are also cash incentives for survey and ethnographic research participants.

Where can I go if I need a support referral?

Click here for on-campus and off-campus support resources. 

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Questions? Comments? We want to hear from you.