Over the past several decades, the topic of campus safety has become increasingly important to discussions around the roles universities play in the lives of their students. For many, their college campus becomes their first home-away-from-home. For many more, it is a crucial new community, as full of opportunities as it is peers. When it comes to holistic student success in higher education, feelings of belonging to and active participation in their student community are influential factors—neither of which are possible without first establishing a sense of safety.
(Campus) Climate Control
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. Of course, understanding what you are required (or recommended) to do is often different from understanding why—and taking accurate, routine measurements of your campus climate is necessary to developing initiatives that most effectively address the unique concerns your student body.
Demystifying the Process
If your campus is new to assessing campus climate, the scope and importance of the work can be more than a little daunting. There are many reasons to conduct a climate study, but no universal “right” way to conduct one. That being said, over 20+ years of research on the subject has shown there are three main challenges to most climate studies: definitions, sensitivity, and context. By investigating these challenges, campuses can be better prepared to craft a climate study that will provide accurate, actionable information to support their particular needs.
Challenge 1: Definitions
The term “campus climate” does not have a universal definition or use, so it is important to establish how climate will be defined on your campus and make that definition widely known.
Climate can be defined around populations and domains
For instance, much of higher education climate research focuses on racial climate. However, it could also focus on populations defined by gender identity, sexual orientation, disabilities, socio-economic status, religion, or age—and the list goes on. And your climate studies aren’t limited to the study body; they can also assess issues faced by faculty or staff, including those within the faculty community (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. If a campus is assessing climate related to race/ethnicity, their study could ask about students’ knowledge of or attitudes towards other groups, specific behaviors, interactions, incidents, or experiences. The study could also 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 violence, ADA requirements focus on accessibility. The range of domains for climate studies is large.
Wow, that’s a lot
You’re right! It is. Clearly, a single climate survey can’t address every issue--and we shouldn’t expect it to. Issues will change over time. For this reason, it is important to define, focus, and broadly communicate what “campus climate” means to your university, while being open to broadening or shifting that definition as needs arise.
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? 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 is an indicator of how critical it is the work be done, and done well.
Challenge 3: Context
Climate studies are inextricably grounded in the broader context of a specific campus. Political dynamics—both internal and external—may influence the who, what, and how of a 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!), and even perceptions of the media may have an affect on how results are shared or which initiatives are prioritized.
A climate study has to be planned with this wide range of factors in mind. While there may be less effective methods, there is no universal “right” way to conduct a climate survey because context always 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 assessing and addressing context.
Bridging the Gap
We’ve said it once before: climate studies are both difficult and important. The data they provide set the tone and direction for your greater campus safety prevention, information, and procedure initiatives. Still not sure where to start? Benchworks Campus Climate Assessments are backed by over 25 years of experience, research, and higher education data, and customizable to your campus concerns. Request a demo and we’ll walk you through the process (we’re nice, we promise).
To bridge the gap between theory—or requirements—and practice, the Clery Center provides relevant resources and strategies in conjunction with National Campus Safety Awareness Month to enhance your own understanding of current campus safety best practices and to improve your own prevention and response procedures. Learn more here.