Project IX: Student Design to Combat Sexual Assault on Tulane’s Campus


August 30, 2018

By Allison Schiller, MArch; Katie Mathews, BA and Maggie Hermann, BPH

After a survey at Tulane University revealed startling sexual assault statistics, the senior administration hired design consultants to lead a student-centered qualitative research and design project to address campus-wide concerns. The Project IX team proposed a student-driven design thinking collaboration to address tough issues around sexual assault on campus with the goal of bringing the community together to positively change Tulane’s culture.

Beginning in the spring of 2017, Tulane University spent six months surveying undergraduate and graduate students about sexual violence, assault and a culture of rape on campus. Nearly 50 percent of Tulane students responded to the campus climate survey, and the results were staggering: 41 percent of undergraduate women reported experiencing sexual assault since enrolling at Tulane. Fifty-one percent of undergraduate LGBTQ+ women and 39 percent of undergraduate heterosexual women reported having been sexually assaulted.

The senior administration hired design consultants through the Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking to lead a student-centered qualitative research and design project. The center assembled the Project IX team—the name is a reference to federal Title IX laws that govern civil rights policies in universities, including those related to sexual harassment and sexual violence. 

The Project IX team proposed a student-driven design thinking project to address the impacts of sexual assault on campus with the goal of bringing the community together to positively impact Tulane culture. Phase I began in October 2017, with a period of Discovery + Synthesis, and the Project IX Core Team led qualitative research to deeply understand undergraduate student life and identify opportunity areas to be tackled by student teams in Phase II.

Phase II began in January 2018, when the results of the climate survey were released to the Tulane community. Students were angry, felt powerless and wanted to see action that would create a safer campus culture. The Design + Action phase engaged student teams in the steps of ideating, prototyping and testing new ideas for combating sexual violence on campus.

During Phase I, the Project IX team began their research with an open call to students, inviting them to participate in a two-hour interactive workshop to discuss sexual assault on campus and envision solutions. Facilitators and students worked together to map out safe and unsafe places on and near campus, successful and unsuccessful pathways of support, definitions of good sex and opportunities for change.

Through November and December, the Project IX team conducted in-depth interviews with 40 participants: 35 students and five members of the Tulane faculty and staff.

The Project IX team met around 30 students in their own homes or dormitories, four students (football players) in an athletics office and one student in a public park. Female facilitators interviewed female student participants, male facilitators interviewed male student participants, and each interview lasted between 90 and 180 minutes. Project IX facilitators guided participants in discussing messages on gender, life at Tulane, the social scene, nightlife, the role of social media in socializing and their relationships and sex in college. The facilitators used visual tools and activities to guide some conversation topics, such as drawing Past-Present-Future sex life, a boundaries communication map and a campus risk spots map.

The Project IX core team synthesized the interviews, and using the methods and mindsets of design thinking, they identified four key challenge areas for student teams to address during the second phase of the project: education, justice, community and dialogue. Specifically the insights that guided the selection of challenge areas began with the discovery that students arrive to campus without a foundational knowledge for healthy sex, and when they arrive, they fall into a culture of approaching sex for social belonging, not for pleasure or intimacy. 

Challenge Area #1: Education

Rape culture thrives on social ambiguity.

Challenge Area #2: Justice

There is little deterrent for sexual violence because big infractions are not being punished and publicized.

Challenge Area #3: Community

In the absence of clear authority, roles, support and mentorship, students have created their own toxic cultures without guidance in healthy relationship building.

Challenge Area #4: Dialogue

The problem is not just that students are aggressors; most men on campus don’t think rape is a problem, while most women aren’t talking about it as a problem.

The Project IX team was committed to putting the students at the center of the challenge—designing solutions to one of the most pressing issues on campus—deciding that each challenge area would be addressed by a team. Over the course of the spring semester, the teams would design their own continued audit of the landscape and build their design brief and schedule. The students who participated in the project received one hour of course credit for their work on Project IX. At the conclusion of the semester, the teams met with local architects to help design presentation boards, an MBA student to advise them on feasibility and costs of implementation, and the Tulane Title IX coordinator to work out issues of policy and reporting structures. 

On May 2, 2018, student teams presented 10 design ideas to the senior administration and campus community. The Tulane community is committed to working to implement many of these student design ideas, and the students are invested in seeing their ideas continue to move forward. The Project IX core team provided a roadmap to the senior administration with recommendations for carrying these projects forward. Additionally, the team shared their key takeaways: 

  • Agency is key.
  • Creativity is healing.
  • Change needs a hub.
  • The problem goes beyond sexual assault to a culture change.
  • Ideas need to be student-driven.
  • Success depends upon leveraging multidisciplinary expertise.

Allison Schiller is a creative consultant and Professor of Design Thinking for Social Impact at Tulane University. She was Co-Lead for Project IX, Student Design to End Sexual Assault on Campus.

Katie Mathews is a documentary filmmaker and design researcher. She was Co-Lead for Project IX, Student Design to End Sexual Assault on Campus.

Maggie Hermann is a graduate of the School of Public Health at Tulane University. She was Project Coordinator for Project IX, Student Design to End Sexual Assault on Campus.

Read More Stories