Another Inconvenient Truth: Capturing
Campus Climate and Its Consequences
By Eric L. Dey, associate professor and special
advisor to the dean, Center for the Study of Higher
and Postsecondary Education, University of Michigan
Just as Al Gore's 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth
brought attention to a global climate crisis, research
is heightening awareness of another pressing climate
issue: that of climates on our college campuses. Studies
continue to indicate that campus climates affect a variety
of college outcomes, especially diversity outcomes (Dey
1991; Hurtado et al. 2003; Mayhew, Grunwald, and Dey
2005). Diversity outcomes--including contributing to
larger communities and taking seriously the perspectives
of others--are goals shared by educational efforts focused
on personal and social responsibility. AAC&U's Templeton-funded
initiative, Core Commitments, takes the challenge to
educate for responsible ethical behavior head on. Researchers
at the University of Michigan are assisting participating
institutions in examining some of the inconvenient truths
revealed when campuses investigate how their climates
can impede or facilitate student learning and behavior.
Understanding and Capturing Campus Climate
With respect to diversity, researchers have argued
that the campus climate and its impact involve four
connected elements: institutional context, structural
diversity, psychological (perceptual) dimensions, and
behavioral dimensions (Hurtado et al. 1998). Schools
that are consistent across these four elements are able
to enhance student outcomes through the creation of
strong, supportive, and unified campus cultures.
But measuring alignment of the four elements presents
certain challenges. Campus climate data are generally
perceptual in nature, complicating the task of capturing
what an institution is actually doing. Contradictory
climate data may point to: (a) lack of awareness
about existing programs and practices, (b) lack of impact
of programs and practices on the institutional culture,
or (c) actual gaps in programs and practices.
Climate information helps institutions probe further
into the sources of discrepancies.
The Personal and Social Responsibility Institutional
Using data from a new set of instruments called the
Personal and Social Responsibility Institutional Inventory
(PSRII), the research team for AAC&U's Core Commitments
project helped campuses understand what kind of learning
environments they were actually offering students. Core
Commitments aims to reclaim and revitalize the academy's
role in fostering students' development of personal
and social responsibility. At the project's core are
five key dimensions:
- Striving for excellence: developing
a strong work ethic and consciously doing one's very
best in all aspects of college;
- Cultivating personal and academic integrity:
recognizing and acting on a sense of honor, ranging
from honesty in relationships to principled engagement
with a formal academic honors code;
- Contributing to a larger community:
recognizing and acting on one's responsibility to
the educational community and the wider society, locally,
nationally, and globally;
- Taking seriously the perspectives of others:
recognizing and acting on the obligation to inform
one's own judgment; engaging diverse and competing
perspectives as a resource for learning, citizenship,
- Developing competence in ethical and moral
reasoning: incorporating the other four responsibilities
and using such reasoning in learning and in life.
The PSRII consists of attitudinal and behavioral questions
(including questions that are open ended) across the
five dimensions and is tailored for each of four constituent
groups (students, faculty, student affairs staff, and
administrators). It is designed to gauge participants'
perceptions about the opportunities for learning and
engagement with issues of personal and social responsibility
across institutional domains.
Work on the PSRII began in 2006 under the direction
of Lee Knefelkamp and Richard Hersh with research assistance
from Lauren Ruff. Researchers carefully designed the
survey with a basis in psychology and developmental
literatures. A team at the University of Michigan's
Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education
(Dey and Associates 2008) refined the inventory and
gathered data from twenty-three schools participating
in the Core Commitments Leadership Consortium. The overall
survey response rate was 28 percent among students and
47 percent among professionals. Results were statistically
adjusted to account for bias in response patterns.
Learning from Campus Climate Data
PSRII data clearly demonstrate that the campus community
views developing personal and social responsibility
as an important rather than an elective component of
a college education.
Across the board, students, faculty, administrators,
and student affairs staff on the twenty-three campuses
believe that personal and social responsibility should
be a major focus of attention at their own college or
university (see fig. 1). But despite the perceived value
of such education, all surveyed groups reported that
their campuses were not focusing enough attention on
these issues. Data reveal a dramatic gap between "should
be" and "is."
1: Importance of promoting personal and
social responsibility on campus
Other data indicate that students report having grown
in terms of personal and social responsibility during
college (see fig. 2). More than 40 percent of students
viewed themselves as having developed in all areas except
contributing to a larger community, even when insufficient
opportunities exist. Campus professionals share the
same perception, but are more reserved in their assessments.
2: Do students leave college having become stronger
across these dimensions?
The data raise the question: If institutions can close
the gap between "should be" and "is currently,"
might student gains climb to even higher numbers?
Campus climate surveys such as the PSRII are vital
to examining the "real" versus the "ideal"
view of campus environments and the inconvenient truth
that these views are often dissimilar. The PSRII is
intended to encourage vigorous dialogue among students,
campus professionals, and higher education leaders.
This dialogue should lead to enhanced opportunities
for students to cultivate a commitment to excellence
and integrity, to engage across differences on and off
campus, and to develop moral discernment and action
in their public and private lives. Institutionally focused
PSRII data can help campus leaders identify how to enhance
awareness of existing programs and fill gaps in current
practices. Surveys like this one help leaders develop
an institutional climate that can unequivocally educate
students for personal and social responsibility.
Dey, E. L. 1991. Perceptions of the college environment:
An analysis of organizational, interpersonal, and behavioral
influences. PhD diss., University of California-Los
Dey, E. L., and Associates. 2008. Should colleges focus
more on personal and social responsibility? Washington,
DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Hurtado, S., E. L. Dey, P. Gurin, and G. Gurin. 2003.
The college environment, diversity, andstudent learning.
In Higher education: Handbook of theory and research,
eds. J. Smart and W. Tierney, 143-189. Amsterdam: Kluwer
Hurtado, S., J. F. Milem, A. R. Clayton-Pedersen, and
W. R. Allen. 1998. Enhancing campus climates for racial/ethnic
diversity. Review of Higher Education 21 (3):
Mayhew, M. J., H. E. Grunwald, and E. L. Dey. 2005.
Curriculum matters: Creating a positive climate for
diversity from the student perspective. Research
in Higher Education 46 (4): 389-412.
Note: This article was drawn from material prepared
by members of the University of Michigan's Core Commitments
Research Group, including Mary Antonaros, Cassie Barnhardt,
Matthew Holsapple, Karen Moronski, and Veronica Vergoth.
For more information on Core Commitments, visit www.aacu.org/core_commitments.