GVSU climate survey reveals comfort, disparity levels on campus

It’s been a long five years since Grand Valley State University last took its temperature. As it turns out, the campus is pretty healthy overall — with some room for improvement.

Last month, the university released the extended report of its 2015 myGVSU campus climate survey, and the results are mixed but encouraging, survey organizers said.

The survey conducted by a third-party administrator measures climate, which according to the survey instrument designed by Sue Rankin, of Rankin & Associates, is defined by the quality of interactions on campus based on attitudes, actions and levels of respect for all individuals.

In all, 11,925 students, faculty and staff responded to the survey, a 42-percent response rate. Some of the findings include the fact 87 percent of all respondents feel “comfortable” or “very comfortable” with the overall campus climate, yet members of minority identity groups report higher levels of hostile interactions/incidents — 14 percent compared to 11 percent when the survey was last administered in 2011.

Other survey findings:

  • 78 percent of students were “comfortable” or “very comfortable” with the climate in living centers.
  • 40 percent of transgender or “other” gender reported higher levels of negative/hostile personal experiences.
  • 78 percent of respondents believed the university is “committed to diversity.”
  • A higher percentage of employees (29 percent in 2015, 20 percent in 2011) reported observing “unfair and unjust hiring practices.”

Jesse Bernal, GVSU vice president for inclusion and equity and survey committee chair, said the university uses the survey to reach more inclusiveness and a better sense of community.

“We have certain values at GVSU,” he said. “How do we create an environment where everyone can succeed? How do we create a place where everyone can bring their full, authentic selves? How are we creating a community where individuals feel supported and we’re creating programs that enable student, faculty and staff success?

“What we know about college experience is that people from underrepresented groups tend to perceive the campus differently. We wanted to make sure we continue to track disparities between identity groups and decrease them.”

The school conducted its first climate survey in 1993, followed by surveys in 2000, 2005, 2011 and 2015.

Bernal said the first survey focused mostly on gender equity and women’s issues, and over time, the surveys have expanded to explore other types of identities.

The questionnaire was shortened from a 45-minute survey in 2011 to a 15-minute survey in 2015, mostly by reducing the amount of open-ended questions to make it more accessible, Bernal said.

The survey advisory committee also altered the types of questions to make it more inclusive, he said.

“We enhanced the demographic section and the nature of identity, expanding the options for people to identify in the areas of sexual and gender identity,” he said. “We added an option for military status: reserves or active duty.

“We also included a question on caregiving and parenting, whether the respondent is a caregiver or parent.”

Leading up to the survey period of Nov. 12-23, 2015, Andrew Plague, inclusion and equity communications and project coordinator, began a wide-ranging outreach campaign to various populations on campus to promote the survey and boost participation rates. The goal was to ensure maximum diversity.

“One of the things we did … leading up to the survey was specific targeted outreach to groups that have historically been minorities on our campus and in education in general. We reached out to our Black Student Union, other campus groups and faculty and staff affinity groups that include black, Asian, Hispanic and women members.”

Plague and his team sent emails, posted signs, hung banners and held a kickoff party in partnership with the campus Women’s Center, LGBT Resource Center and Office of Multicultural Affairs, where attendees could use provided iPads and other devices to fill out the survey and be entered for a gift card drawing.

The survey consisted of four sections: experiences, perceptions, institutional actions and diversity. Bernal said he was surprised by two results.

“Under institutional actions, the desire for our campus to want more effective mentoring was pretty significant, and that’s across the board of staff, students and faculty,” he said. “And also under diversity, they want more training around diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Beginning in January, a cross-section of campus populations, assembled into “action groups,” will begin reviewing the survey results and making recommendations — two recommendations per group, per year, for five years.

Following past surveys, the university has “used the data to implement change,” Bernal said. This includes the formation of the Women’s Center, the LGBT Resource Center, the Inclusion and Equity Division and the Gender Identity and Expression Committee.

Going forward, it’s very likely the survey results will reveal the need for further study, Bernal said.

“We’ll also be potentially administering focus groups to get stories from people of color, LGBT communities and people with disabilities,” he said. “We’ll want them to tell us more about what those negative experiences were … to make sure we can reduce those disparities.”

Bernal said he hopes future action will decrease the marginalization of transgender people especially.

“One of the efforts we were trying to dig into is that our transgender population, which is about 1 percent of survey respondents, shows that they are the community that feels least comfortable and least included on campus,” he said. “That’s something we’re going to really think about and dig deeper into.

“We tend to think we’re better at inclusion than we actually are.”

Plague said he was overwhelmingly impressed by the participation rate.

“I would just add as someone who is new to climate work, I don’t have the background that Jesse does, but I’ve been really impressed with the overall campus interest in the results: understanding our climate and wanting to improve it,” he said. “We received interest from staff, students and faculty, as well as executive deans — they want to know how our campus stacks up and how they can make changes.”

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