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Toxic Campus Climates

Toxic Campus Climates

It’s been a dismal year for racial harmony on campus, but some scholars say conflict can serve as a learning experience for the entire community 

By Kendra Hamilton

The rings and robes have been ordered and there’s both joy and uncertainty in the air as campuses go through the annual rite of graduation. But, across the nation, there are also pockets of administrators who can’t wait to close the books on the 2005-2006 academic year.

If the headlines are any measure, it’s been a dismal year for racial harmony on campus, with these controversies erupting:

– Boulder, Colo., where threatening e-mails to campus athletes and a female student leader — “You will die if you run for student government” — have rattled Black and Hispanic students and embarrassed the administration.

– Chicago, where a  “straight thuggin’ party” — attended by White University of Chicago students wearing chains, baggy clothing and handcuffs as they guzzled alcohol and listened to 50 Cent and Notorious B.I.G. — has offended the Southside neighborhoods surrounding the campus while roiling the tranquil waters of affluent Hyde Park.

– And, of course, Durham, N.C., where allegations of underage drinking, racial slurs and gang rape have tarred, perhaps permanently, Duke University’s squeaky clean reputation in athletics.

“Unfortunately, it always seems to take a crisis” to focus attention on the stresses and strains of students’ daily interactions with each other, says Dr. Jesús Treviño, associate provost and head of the Center for Multicultural Excellence at the University of Denver. But instead of commissions, head-shaking and hand-wringing, he says “what we really need is a different model for engaging the entire [academic] community.”

It’s a sentiment others have drawn as well. “The crisis at Duke, while certainly painful and traumatic for them, is not particular to that one campus,” says Dr. William B. Harvey, who left the American Council on Education last year to become vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity at the University of Virginia.

“The real import of this situation is that it [creates a conversation that] challenges those of us in higher education who haven’t personally experienced a crisis of this magnitude as to what our processes and attitudes and actions would be,” Harvey says.

Adding to the debate is a growing body of research and a growing consensus among practitioners and key decision-makers that real progress in achieving equity can’t be made until discussions move beyond the quantities of students on a given campus to embrace the quality of the experiences that they have once they’re there. In other words, the “campus climate.”

A Failure of Faculty?
Toxic campus climates are not born; they’re made. They arise out of the very metaphors campuses use to talk about diversity, Treviño says. “Are the messages shaped around the ‘deficit model’ that says: ‘You’re disadvantaged, less than, broken; I’m going to bring you in to my program and fix you?’” he asks. “Or are they shaped around the ‘success model’ that says: ‘You’re wanted here; you bring tremendous value and contributions to our campus?’”

While student behavior is often scrutinized and criticized by their professors, “In fact, [students] can be the victims of the faculty culture and faculty incompetence,” says Dr. Ximena Zúñiga, assistant professor of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “I see White students and students of color as victims of a system created by faculty and administration.”

Students deserve a great deal of credit for their contributions, says Dr. Patricia Gurin, acting director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan and the Nancy Cantor Distinguished University Professor, Emerita, of psychology and women’s studies.

“Historically, the programs that have developed and even the increases in students, faculty and staff have mostly come through the mobilization of students — students of color, women and so on,” Gurin says.

“Students have been the leaders in pressing universities to become more responsive, to foster more opportunities to create more interaction in learning and living environments.”

Harvey pushes the analysis into the present: “I think what’s happening on campuses today is reflective of a sense of dissatisfaction on the part of our young people. Theoretically, they’re told their nation and their campuses are post-segregation, but they’re living largely segregated lives,” he says. “Intuitively, they understand the contradictions between the value statements of the culture and their lives. So they’re looking for ways to make connections, gain a deeper understanding of themselves and others, but they don’t know how to step outside their own groups and comfort zones. And institutions haven’t done a good job of helping them.

“By and large, we still expect the people who have the least power and influence — students and people of color — to be responsible for changing the [academic] community,” Harvey says. “I don’t think we’re fully accepting the magnitude of the change that’s coming, the convergence of technology and demographics that’s going to make the world so very different.”

Evaluating Campus Climates
The most widely accepted model for evaluating campus climate — developed nearly a decade ago by Drs. Sylvia Hurtado, Jeff Milem, Alma Clayton-Pederson and Walter Allen — posits a four-dimensional framework.

– An institution’s historical legacy of inclusion or exclusion, including the ways systems, structures, curriculum, etc., evolved to deliver embedded benefits to some and withhold them from others.

– The compositional diversity, the dimension most people think of when they think of diversity — the numbers of different groups represented among students, faculty and staff.

– The psychological climate — the attitudes and beliefs people within the organization have about the climate.

– And the behavioral climate — whether structures and individual faculty are contributing to a positive climate through programs, research and teaching practices.

“These dimensions are not discrete,” says Milem, who will soon be leaving the University of Maryland-College Park to take a full professorship at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. “You’ve got to have all of them. For instance, in order to bring students together in diverse groups, you have got to begin with sufficient compositional diversity.”

Though his current work focuses on assessing race equity at institutions in the South (See Diverse Dec. 15, 2005), Milem, in recent years, has returned to the climate model to add a fifth dimension: the structural and organizational dimension.

“That dimension encompasses questions like, ‘What are hiring practices, the promotion and tenure policies, how do we define merit, who decides on the curriculum, whose experiences are represented in that curriculum and whose are not?’” he says. “I’ve come to the conclusion that we really have to pay attention to these matters because they are at the core of who we are and how we function in higher education, what our values are, how we enact these values.

“We also need to be doing regular assessments. Few places do, and even fewer do it in a way that allows the university to understand the impact on learning outcomes,” Milem adds. “Too many times, it’s a one-shot deal, there’s a report that sits on a shelf” until the next crisis.

While there are countless institutions that fit this profile, and many others that appear happily and placidly homogeneous, there are a few that are striving for the “total package.” Of those few, the institutions that are often mentioned as leaders in this area are Arizona State University, the University of Maryland-College Park, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the University of Michigan and the University of Washington.

These institutions appear to have several things in common. The first, says Gurin, is a historic legacy of openness to student activism.

“This isn’t to say that administrations aren’t capable of being proactive, but the process works best and most creatively when administrators and faculty are in touch with ideas and energy that come from the students,” she notes.

The second common point among the leading institutions is a broad commitment to supplementing the traditional structures of intragroup support, including offices of minority or multicultural affairs, with programs that foster “intergroup dialogue.”

The University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations, founded in 1988, was the first in the nation, says Dr. Kelley Maxwell, the program’s associate director. The concept appears to have gathered steam recently. It was partly Treviño’s role as founder and champion of Arizona State’s program that led the University of Denver to recruit him.

He’s spreading the concept through the newly founded Consortium on Intergroup Relations and Campus Climate, Leadership, and Education — or “CIRCLE.” He says the groups name refers to “the story circles that are such an integral a part what we do.” Members of the growing group include Southwestern and West Coast schools such as University of California-Los Angeles, Arizona State and Denver’s Metropolitan State College. The University of Texas at San Antonio recently became the newest addition.

Those pioneering schools also appear to share a rigorous commitment to research and to putting structures into place to support specific outcomes. “That’s the most important thing that has changed — no one was doing research in the 1970s,” says Milem.

He adds that one of the things that proved persuasive to the U.S. Supreme Court majority in Michigan’s 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision was research proving that diverse learning environments create a specific set of conditions — unfamiliarity, disequilibrium, differing perspectives, contradictory expectations, etc. — that promote deeper, more complex thinking and learning.

At the University of Washington, officials are breaking ground in a new area: administering their climate survey to faculty and staff. “Actually I think everybody creates the climate. We’re all [students, faculty and staff] part of it. The burden has to be on everybody,” says Dr. Ana Mari Cauce, UW’s executive vice provost, explaining the university’s rationale.

Some of the findings have been startling. For example, there’s a 50 percentage point difference in the numbers of African-American and White male faculty who say they have a favorable view of the campus climate. But UW is taking immediate action, conducting two executive-level searches to address the issues identified in the survey.

“One of the positions is in the provost’s office. We’re looking for an associate vice provost for faculty advancement to strengthen our recruiting of faculty of color,” says Joanne Suffis, interim vice president of human resources for UW. “I am hiring a diversity staffing specialist that will have a similar role for staff.”

But while campuses appear to be stepping up their efforts to transform the college-going experience on a broad front, experts in this area send up a warning flag.

Even if they succeed in their most ambitious efforts, they caution, it will not eliminate conflict.

“Actually, conflict is not a bad thing,” Milem says, citing work from educational activist Parker Palmer. “[He] has argued you can’t have community without conflict. As you increase your representation of under-represented groups, they put pressure on the institution to change in ways that are responsive to their needs. That’s why you need to pay attention to curriculum, to pedagogy, to ways of mediating the conflicts which are certain to arise,” Milem says.

Gurin concurs, “There’s too much longing for campuses without conflict. I’m sure that there are parents out there who wish an educational experience for their kids that is pain-free and bathed in the glow of this rosy, rosy climate. But it’s not possible and, if you think about it, it really would be a disservice to the kids and the type of world they’ll have to navigate as adults.” 

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