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Fostering an inclusive campus climate

This piece was originally posted on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion’s One U Thriving newsletter blog.

What is campus climate?

Campus climate is a measure—real or perceived—of “the current attitudes, behaviors and standards of faculty, staff, administrators and students concerning the level of respect for individual needs, abilities and potential” (Hurtado, 1992; Rankin, 2001). A healthy campus climate is one where people and communities are thriving; where individuals and groups generally feel welcomed, respected, and valued. An unhealthy environment, by contrast is marked by exclusion, isolation, marginalization, and threats to safety. It is important to note, however, that a healthy campus climate is not about always feeling positive—in fact, uncomfortable or challenging situations can lead to increased awareness, understanding, and appreciation. Thus, building a healthy campus climate is not about avoiding tension, but rather, cultivating respect where tension can be addressed appropriately.

Why does climate matter?

A healthy campus climate benefits all community members, not just those who have been historically underrepresented. Research indicates that a hostile campus climate directly impacts students’ transition into college (Hurtado, Milem, Clatyon-Pederson & Allen, 1999). Students are also less likely to adjust socially and academically in unhealthy campus climates. However, in healthy climates, positive intergroup interactions can improve academic outcomes (Milem, Chang & Antonio, 2005). Climate similarly impacts the recruitment, retention, productivity, and success of diverse faculty and staff (Settles, Cortina, Malley, & Stewart, 2006). Because campus climate directly impacts student learning and the success of the academic community, cultivating a healthy and thriving climate has become an institutional imperative.

Higher education leaders are increasingly focused on the value behind assessing and addressing campus climate. Indeed, a growing number of these leaders view equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives as incomplete until campus climate is acknowledged, assessed, and tracked on a regular basis across institutional departments and disciplines. In an unhealthy climate, institutions are unlikely to achieve equity, diversity, and inclusion goals; on the other hand, in a healthy climate, the benefits and positive outcomes of diversity can be more fully realized. Climate matters because it is evidence of an institution’s commitment to walking the diversity talk.

What factors or dimensions contribute to creating “campus climate?”

Campus climate is informed by both internal and external forces. Internally, institutional actions, teaching and research, structural diversity, and intergroup interaction all influence climate. Additionally, campuses may be affected by larger local and national landscape; thus, many external factors, such as shifts in policy, culture, and major societal events inform the sociohistorical context of campus (Hurtado, et al., 1999).

Within the institution, actions and messages from university leadership contribute to the climate, particularly in regard to commitments to foster inclusion. Teaching and research on a campus are both a reflection of the climate as well as factors that affect the climate. Individuals and groups on campus will look for the promotion and inclusion of a variety of cultures and perspectives in research, curriculum, and pedagogy across all disciplines to assess a campus’ climate. Structural diversity, or the actual representation of diverse individuals and groups on a campus, also influences climate. For example, the existence of diversity can attract additional diversity with a “critical mass,” allowing diverse individuals and groups to see their impact and value on the campus. However, structural diversity alone does not create a healthy or unhealthy climate. Positive intergroup interaction (Chang, in press; Allport, 1954) alongside structural diversity is needed to cultivate a healthy campus climate.

External factors that impact campus climate include governmental policy and the sociohistorical context surrounding an institution. Examples of governmental policy, programs, and initiatives include financial aid policies and programs, state and federal policy on affirmative action, court decisions on the desegregation of higher education, and state appropriations. Intertwined with governmental policy is the sociohistorical context surrounding an institution, including events or issues in the larger society.

These external factors, while originating outside of campus, can affect whether some individuals 1) feel they would be welcome on campus and 2) feel they would find a supportive environment on campus. These impressions can ultimately influence whether individuals and groups decide to enroll or work in an institution. Thus, campus climate cannot be addressed without contextualizing the impact of external factors. By nature, campus climate is fluid and unique to each campus. “Micro-climates” on each campus—within individual departments, disciplines, residence halls, off-campus communities, and other settings—also must be assessed and addressed to ensure a thriving climate across the campus community.

If climate matters, how can a thriving campus climate be achieved?

Join Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in exploring the institutional practices that foster a more inclusive climate where individuals, communities, and campuses can thrive. Examine the impact that campus, local, and national policy can have on creating a healthy campus climate during the September Friday Forum on Racism in Higher Education on September 30, 2022, at 1 p.m. MT. Register and learn more here.

To learn more about the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Strategy Council’s work group on fostering an inclusive campus climate, visit here.