The University of California Studies its 'Campus Climate'
President Obama’s White House is exploring options to require U.S colleges and universities to conduct campus climate surveys in 2016. The University of California has just concluded such a survey, demonstrating the limited value of such costly exercises.
In 2012, then-University of California President Mark Yudof commissioned a survey of 386,000 UC students, staff and faculty about their experiences of campus and workplace climate. UC hired an outside contractor at a reported cost of $602,000 (or the equivalent of one-year’s, $12,192, in-State tuition for 49 California undergraduates). When the time-costs of UC participants* involved in survey design, administration, and creation of 14 reports is included, the rumored, actual cost is $1million.
The results are in. Only 104,000, or 27%, chose to respond, leading some to conclude a lack of interest in the topic or disdain for the questions. Of those responding, 79% were “comfortable” or “very comfortable” with the climate at UC. Most importantly for a public research university, 69% of undergraduate students and 78% of graduate/professional students were satisfied with their academic experiences at UC. Furthermore, 75% of undergraduate students, 85% of Graduate/Professional students, and 67% of Post Docs/Trainees felt valued by faculty in the classroom.
Despite these responses, the headlines were bad. “Quarter of UC population had bad experiences on campus,” according to the University of California 2014 Campus Climate Study. About 9% said some exclusionary, intimidating or offensive situations had interfered with their study or work at UC.
A few UC Regents called for repeated – annual or biannual – surveys to reduce the “bad experiences” number to zero. The current (voting) UC Student Regent, a UC Irvine law school student, saw room for improvement, adding “If you feel you are outnumbered or explicitly under-represented, you will feel disenfranchised.” And the UC Office of the President offered the typical university administrators’ response -- it will hire a Systemwide Diversity Coordinator to advise on policy and programs that address UC students, faculty and staff campus climate issues.
“Bad” Personal Experiences
Rationalized by the recent literature on campus climate influence on academic and professional success, the Survey asks for incidents of perceived slights that it terms “microaggressions,” the type of conduct that “has a negative influence on people who experience the conduct even if they feel at the time it had no impact.”
But not all the reported experiences are necessarily bad or inappropriate in an academic setting. Consider “I was singled out as a spokes-person for my identity group.” The question not only assumes one person can speak for a whole identity group, but assumes the respondent perceives the opportunity to share her perspective in an intellectual setting to be a bad experience. Stifling this opportunity would likely reduce intellectual benefits of campus discussions.
Or consider “I received a low performance evaluation.” The decision to attend college or graduate school presumes the student is willing to be subjected to regular, intense, intellectual performance evaluations. And who hasn’t received a low performance evaluation? Most importantly, the question presumes the negative evaluation was unwarranted.
Some respondents questioned the questions. On gender identity, for example, some UCLA responses were “are you kidding?,” “offensive to ask these questions,” and “Sweet Jesus, is this a serious question?”
And both the reported conduct and its source may be in the eye of the beholder. When respondents were asked to report exclusionary (e.g., shunned, ignored), intimidating, offensive and/or hostile conduct within the past year, questions included “I felt isolated or left out;” or “I observed that others were staring at me;” or “Someone assumed I was admitted/hired/promoted due to my identity.” Then respondents were asked to report the basis for this conduct from thirty-two possible sources (e.g., ethnicity, gender identity, physical characteristics, race, sexual orientation).
The goal of reducing reported “bad experiences” to zero in any future UC campus climate study is impossible and in many instances would stifle intellectually-robust campus discussions.
There appears to be no legal justification for eradicating many of the perceived (or nonexistent) reported slights. University administrators may punish only “harassment that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court. And many of these reported incidents -- such as a student being asked her opinion about a class discussion topic -- are protected by the U.S. Constitution, particularly the First Amendment right to free speech.
Unwanted Sexual Conduct
Defined as “forcible fondling, sexual assault, forcible rape, use of drugs to incapacitate, forcible sodomy, gang rape, and sexual assault with an object,” unwanted sexual conduct during the last five years was reported by 3% of UC respondents. Percentages were higher for undergraduate students (10%), “genderqueer” respondents (9%), “transgender” respondents (9%), and women (4%) vs men respondents (1%).
UC campuses are legally required to address sexual misconduct allegations under Title IX, a 1972 U.S. law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all educational programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. And the 1990 Clery Act requires colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their campuses. Violations can lead to civil fines and/or suspension of federal student financial aid programs by the U.S. Department of Education.
A review of the Study’s open-ended answers on unwanted sexual conduct reveals that some students reported minor incidents. At UCLA, for example, individuals report: “an unwanted hug from a volunteer;” and “co-worker touched me inappropriately under the guise of wiping some sauce off my shirt;” and “a male co-worker kept touching my back.”
Similar minor incidents were reported in UC Santa Barbara’s neighboring Isla Vista. “When girls go out to Isla Vista, it is a common occurrence for a guy to grab a girl’s butt when she’s walking down the street.” A male respondent wrote “In Isla Vista I have been groped many times by women I did not know, nor whom I wanted to touch me. As a male no one really seems to complain about this type of thing and no one takes it seriously.”
More importantly, many commenters reported that alcohol fueled unwanted sexual conduct. At UCLA, “Parties with alcohol tend to be where most of the unwanted touching, grabbing, etc., occurs.” Said another student, “A lot of frat parties here are designed to get girls drunk and have sex with them. Other individuals at other parties often have the same goal. The girl seems to be okay with it, but how can they know when she’s so drunk? I have on multiple occasions awoken to a story I never consented to.” Also at UCLA, “a number of respondents said they were raped while at UCLA. Some of those individuals indicated that they and/or their attackers were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assaults. One women said her attacker “was a ‘friend’ but more of a predator. Everyone assumed he was ‘taking care’ of me – because I was ‘too drunk.’ However, sexual acts are not a form of taking care of someone who is intoxicated or blacked out.”
Alcohol similarly fueled unwanted sexual conduct at UCSB. “Some of the respondents said they were drunk and alone at parties when male ‘friends’ had sex with them without their consent or ‘went farther with a guy than I meant to;’ others were able to escape the situations before they escalated.
The UC Campus Climate Study Summary reports that UC’s revised Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Policy addresses dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. Curiously, the Summary omits respondents’ reports of the pervasive role of alcohol in unwanted sexual conduct at UC.
The 2014 UC Campus Climate Study results discussed here appear to be of limited value. Sample bias is likely pervasive. Not all reported “bad experiences” are bad. Many reported, “offensive” incidents are likely protected by the U.S. Constitution. And serious sexual conduct violations already are being addressed and adjudicated.
UC Regents should reconsider repeating the campus climate survey. The Survey results do not appear to justify the rumored $1 million costs -- equivalent to one-year’s tuition for 82 California undergraduates.
* Participants were: Systemwide Work Team representatives from 13 UC locations, including Berkeley’s full-time Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion and his Chief of Staff; representatives from the UC President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture, and Inclusion; the UC Academic Senate; the UC Students Association; the Council of UC Staff Assemblies; plus an employee union representative.
Velma Montoya, Ph.D. (Economics, UCLA) is a former Regent of the University of California, and past Chair of the California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.