Sheila Caldwell, EdD, serves as the SIU System vice president for anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Sheila Caldwell, EdD, serves as the SIU System vice president for anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Chief diversity champions understand one of the most effective strategies a college can implement to attract and retain a diverse faculty and student body is to cultivate an environment in which individuals are committed to creating a culture of welcome and belonging for all. 

Improving affinity has never been more important in higher education. Students are less likely to stay engaged with institutions when there is not a strong feeling of belonging or welcome, resulting in decreased retention and revenue. In a time when so many in the public arena are questioning the value of higher education, it is important to engage students who not only understand the benefits of a college degree but who are willing to pay the cost to earn a four-year degree. 

Benefits of Campus Climate Surveys

Sookyung Suh, PhD, is the director of organizational change management at the SIU School of Medicine.
Sookyung Suh, PhD, director of org. change management, SIU School of Medicine.

A pressing question all college leaders should respond to is how to create and sustain a campus climate that fosters inclusive excellence for all students. As colleges grapple with polarized views in politics, religion, and racial ideologies, campus climate surveys are necessary to help leaders across higher education take temperature checks and establish benchmarks to improve relationships, advance anti-racism policies and ideologies, and advocate for all stakeholders. 

Campus climate survey data should go beyond analysis to understand the unique lived experiences of all constituents, especially those who have experienced exclusion and isolation. The aim is to develop actionable strategies that improve classrooms, communities, and the workplace of students and employees though policies and practices that promote acceptance, respect, equity, and authenticity. 

In spring 2022, the Southern Illinois University (SIU) System partnered with INSIGHT Into Diversity to administer Viewfinder Campus Climate Surveys across our system’s campuses. Using Viewfinder enabled us to conduct an anonymous and confidential campus climate survey. The surveys were administered to more than 20,000 students and 7,000 employees, with the aim of assessing perceptions and experiences about feeling welcome, having a sense of belonging, political and religious views, safety, and access to resources in the workplace, classroom, and community. 

Survey invitations were sent to faculty, staff, and students at SIU Carbondale, SIU Edwardsville, SIU School of Medicine, SIU School of Law, and across the health professions departments. 

The survey findings revealed areas for growth in welcoming and belonging, freedom of expression, and retention for diverse constituents. To strengthen strategies and tactics outlined in the SIU System Strategic Plan, SIU campuses will advance anti-racism and anti-oppression initiatives by creating a greater sense of belonging that will enable all members to thrive. 

Communicate the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“You are either preaching to the choir or talking to a wall,” is a direct comment from one of the respondents of the SIU System climate survey. To ensure flourishing for all, communication is essential. SIU campus leaders used existing and new structures to engage students, faculty, and staff members. More than 1,000 comments were extensively documented in the report. 

It was essential for leaders to examine campus-level data to report patterns and significant quantitative findings. SIU anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion (ADEI) leaders were tasked with examining campus-level findings, filtered reports, and the benchmark report prepared by INSIGHT Into Diversity.

Careful analysis led to the crafting of executive summary reports by ADEI vice chancellors. All reports are posted on SIU web pages for transparency and transformation. 

To engage stakeholders across the system and teach about differences, SIU established Conversations of Understanding in 2020 to encourage team members to talk about difficult conversations. This academic year, all six sessions have been dedicated to narrative findings, including addressing perceptions of diversity fatigue, free speech, and the problematic notion that majority members were not well positioned to be hired or earn promotions. Topics such as the Myth of the Most Qualified Applicant, Free Speech, and Diversity of Thought are posted on YouTube.

“Campus climate surveys are necessary to help leaders across higher education take temperature checks and establish benchmarks.”

Ongoing conversations were hosted on SIU campuses in the form of Findings and Discussion Sessions with SIU chancellors during the fall semester. The multicampus events consisted of presenters, including the provost, faculty council leaders, employee affinity group leaders, public safety officers, and ADEI leaders. Campus leaders answered prepared questions received from internal stakeholders in advance of the meeting. A live discussion forum was held to invite additional inquiries from participants. The sessions have fostered greater innovation, dedication, and problem-solving. 

Cultivate Trust and Shared Understanding 

Building a shared understanding of the ADEI mission and the survey results was essential for diversity officers to collaborate, especially across campus. Retreats with ADEI officers from all campuses were implemented to create a sense of community and collectively process the survey results and next steps. The survey results allowed chief diversity officers to better understand commonalities and distinctive gaps. 

For example, most LGBTQIA+ student respondents reported feeling welcome on campus but less included in the surrounding communities. Findings also revealed that the gap was more significant on one campus, which helps shift campus priorities and actionable strategies. 

Gathering key decision-makers was another success factor, as we encouraged others to engage influencers in transformative conversations. The SIU System president was present for the two-day retreat, along with senior leadership. Their presence signaled their support and the significance of ADEI work. Most importantly, it permitted buy-in and effective decision-making across SIU campuses. 

Create and Collaborate  

Climate survey executive summary reports were prepared to inform about the current state, share strategies for improvement, and monitor progress. Executive committee meetings, department chair meetings, and other regular meetings were utilized to present highlights and respond to questions and solutions from employees. 

Sharing the survey results proved to be a constructive way to empower existing allies and improve data literacy skills. The SIU School of Medicine has several active ADEI committees, an anti-bias curriculum committee, an anti-racism task force, and three subcommittees. In addition, there is a robust network of next-generation ADEI leaders referred to as equity ambassadors. 

Sharing the campus climate survey findings with these working groups helped them gain insights and increase their efforts to dismantle racism and oppression. For example, the survey showed increased awareness of ADEI efforts, yet the perception was that there is low accountability for leaders who were responsible for implementing ADEI initiatives. This result enabled the committees to think more strategically to enhance accountability in their areas. 

A rich array of comments provided recommendations and ideas for promoting policy development and its awareness, recruitment/retention efforts, continuous improvement, and campus collaboration. Further discussion of the findings affirmed and reevaluated existing initiatives, which provided committee members with a sense of fulfillment. 

Advance and Sustain Momentum

Collecting and analyzing the correct data is essential, yet it is insufficient to sustain the momentum. Cross-industry research from the Harvard Business Review shows that intentional strategic planning can result in better, faster progress. Moving forward, the SIU System will emphasize proactive planning and integrate campus climate improvement strategies into our daily work. To hold team members accountable for positive change, the Viewfinder campus climate surveys will be administered every three years for the purposes of utilizing data-driven insights as input to develop effective communications strategies, gaining buy-in from stakeholders across campuses, and integrating proven strategies for continuous improvement. 

How you use and debrief the campus climate survey findings with your audience will vary depending on your institution’s size, culture, and level of support from leadership. Although our paths may take a different course, success comes when all stakeholders understand that it is everyone’s business because everyone benefits from an equitable and inclusive campus climate.

Sheila Caldwell, EdD, serves as the SIU System vice president for anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Sookyung Suh, PhD, is the director of organizational change management at the SIU School of Medicine.

This article was published in our January/February 2023 issue.