Why Colleges Need to Conduct Campus Climate Surveys

Why Colleges Need to Conduct Campus Climate Surveys

If you have ever felt “chilly” on your campus or wondered why some students, faculty, and staff seem to feel more at home than others, your institution may need to conduct a climate study.

American institutions of higher education should be examples of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet 2015 was marked with record numbers of student demonstrations, most held to demand what colleges and universities already proudly boast as core values of their mission — equal care for all students, a welcoming workplace for faculty of all backgrounds, and upward mobility for all constituents due to universities’ transparent ethics and civic responsibility.

To make matters more sobering, a 2016 Inside Higher Education report confirms that “presidents tilt toward being more unsympathetic than sympathetic to protesters’ demands and actions.” Given the conditions on campuses around the country, institutions should want to make change happen more quickly. If your institution does, consider using a campus climate study to launch transitional efforts and gain relevant information about students’ concerns before a list of demands lands on the president’s desk.

Of course, conducting a climate study as a single act of good faith is far from doing anything that substantiates positive change. But it can certainly be more than just a simple exercise. It can be the gateway to learning what could or should be done in the eyes of those experiencing the climate as it currently exists. It can also begin the process of gaining critical insight into five components of campus life: institutional history, legacies of inclusion or exclusion, compositional or structural diversity, psychological dimensions of the climate, and behavioral dimensions of the climate. As such, climate studies possess the wherewithal to provide an institution the knowledge needed to manage the responsibility of global representation among its constituents.


There is an inherent responsibility for institutions to make the connection between institutional goals and human behaviors more visible and plausible to everyone. Climate studies, and the results of such studies, help make this a reality.


In addition, diversity administration, if it is to be successful, needs data resulting from campus climate studies to support initiatives that satisfy the need for both institutional return on investment (ROI) and student development to help students transform into multicultural scholars and responsible citizens. There is an inherent responsibility for institutions to make the connection between institutional goals and human behaviors more visible and plausible to everyone. Climate studies, and the results of such studies, help make this a reality by providing data that identifies junctions between points A and B. Using this data to get from one point to the other sets a precedent for meeting students, faculty, and staff where they are on their respective journeys to pluralism, and even helps shape new constructs for campus traditions and local atonement. Without such data, institutions get lost in the creation of “feel good” or nugatory diversity programs. Researchers and authors L.G. Bowman and T.E. Deal caution about such a situation, reminding diversity administrators that “problems arise when structure is poorly aligned with circumstance.”

I have learned in my 24 years in higher education that pre- and post-work surrounding the implementation of a climate study serves to best ensure that those promoting, conducting, and summarizing the study are aligned for action and accountability. Pre-work such as determining why a study should be conducted and how respective populations will be afforded adequate participation is essential to an inclusive and credible research process. Equally important is a plan to keep the study’s final report from gathering dust on a shelf and ensure that it is referenced frequently like a mantra for social justice and constituent goodwill. It is critical to consider root causes and preferred outgrowths before and after such a major investment of institutional resources. It also makes sense to anticipate establishing structures that elevate how people are taught, trained, charged, and rewarded in regard to the campus climate.

Because each component of a campus climate study can be challenging, I applaud institutions’ valor in moving forward into the landscape of new beginnings and relationships of all kinds. As you do so, it is wise to seek external expertise and support to assist with outlining areas for pre- and post-work and provide surveys that result in substantial conclusions and insights.

Viewfinder® is equipped with relevant surveys for each constituent group, as well as services for pre- and post-work that ensure appropriate and flexible thinking at the start and end of each survey.

The time is now to intentionally respond to America’s college students with benchmarking steps toward creating more diverse, respectful, safe, and welcoming campus climates. Conducting a climate study as early as possible not only sets the course for this response, but also carves pathways to achievement in diversity accreditation criteria, nontraditional partnerships, and return on investment.

Many attempts have been made to address social concerns within higher education, and while they claim to result in change, few actually achieve any. Yet, regardless of the methodology or results of these studies, one thing remains clear: The road to substantial change begins with relevant inquiry.●

Posted in: Campus Climate Surveys

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