Addressing the Challenges of Campus Climate Studies

A campus climate study is both difficult and important. In many ways, it’s exactly the type of challenge we should spend additional time thinking through. High-profile incidents, political conversations, and research have all raised serious questions about what can be done to improve the overall safety and climate on college campuses. These discussions make climate studies even more vital and perhaps harder to do. So, keeping all of this in mind, here are three challenges to most climate studies.

Challenge 1: Definitions

  • The term “campus climate” does not have a universal definition. When a campus says it is conducting a climate study, it is not immediately clear what will be studied.
  • Climate can be defined around populations and domains. For instance, much of higher education climate research focuses on racial climate1. However, it could also focus on other groups, including those based on gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, socio-economic status, religion, or age. It could also relate to issues faced by faculty or staff, or even issues within faculty (for instance, tenure versus tenure-track versus non-tenure).
  • Even with a specific group, climate studies can include various domains. They can focus on knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, or environments. For instance, if a campus is focusing on climate related to race/ethnicity, the study could ask about students’ knowledge of or their attitudes towards other groups, specific behaviors, interactions, incidents, or experiences. The study could focus on classroom environments, curriculum, policies related to incidents, or diversity training. It could center on campus perceptions, senior officials, representation, policies, or needed improvements. Climate studies can even focus narrowly on specific issues. For instance, while a White House task force has focused on sexual violence2, ADA requirements focus on accessibility. The range of domains for climate studies is large.

Clearly, most climate surveys cannot address all issues. We need to define, focus, and communicate what is meant by campus climate. And, some push to broaden or shift our definition can be expected.

Challenge 2: Sensitivity

Campus climate is a sensitive topic that can provoke powerful responses. Climate focuses on issues related to our identity, experiences, and values. Thus, it can prompt a wide range of emotions, from passion and excitement to heated discussion and anger. Climate studies have the potential to rouse similar responses.

Concerns can erupt around any aspect of a climate study. Who is involved in the planning may come under scrutiny. Assessment methods, in particular the wording of questions, can become points of contention. Study results will likely prompt strong reactions. Recommendations are meant to provoke discussion.

Those who plan climate studies need to expect these strong reactions. However, the added attention can be both distracting and frustrating because it has the potential to slow down or even stall a study. But, consider this: how often does an assessment project lead to this level of engagement, or even passion? We should embrace the sensitivity of a climate study as an opportunity to promote the quality of the work and broaden the impact of the assessment. In this situation, sensitivity can be a productive thing.

Challenge 3: Context

Climate studies are often difficult because each campus has its own context and environment. The study is grounded in the broader context, which is specific to the campus. Political dynamics—both internal and external—may influence the who, what and how of the study. Legal concerns, such as open records laws and mandated reporting, may affect what data is collected and from whom. Research policies and ethics affect the questions that are asked (do no harm!). Even the media may affect how results are shared. So, a climate study has to be planned with this wide range of factors in mind.

While there may be wrong answers, there is no universal “right” answer to how to conduct a climate survey because the context matters. Many people have insights about important issues. Research boards, legal and media representatives, diversity groups, sexual assault response teams, and others all play a role in the process. Planning and conversation are two powerful tools for addressing context.

In Summary

Overall, my thinking is described in the first sentence; climate studies are both difficult and important. A thoughtful approach is critical to having clear definitions. Embracing the sensitivity and considering the context are invaluable aids in planning.

Climate studies—and the changes that can come from them—are too important to leave to chance. We need to do them well.

For more information about these and other issues related to climate studies, listen to our recent webinar, “Taking Your Campus Pulse: Effective Strategies for Assessing Campus Climate.”

References:
1 Hurtado, S., Griffin, K., Arellano, L., & Cuellar, M. (2008). Assessing the Value of Climate Assessments: Progress and Future Directions. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 1(4), 204-221.

2 White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault (U.S.). (2014). Not alone: The first report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault.