Diversity and Democracy

Climate Matters: Campus Leadership for Educational Success

For decades, researchers and scholars across disciplines have examined the construct of "climate" (derived from the Greek klima, meaning place) to understand how environments influence human cognition and behavior. Within the field of higher education, these scholars have studied how campus climates influence educational efficacy and success, particularly for underserved and underrepresented students.

While some argue that these students' access to higher education has improved precisely as a result of greater attention to climate issues and demographics (see Passel and Cohn 2008), gaps in completion and success rates remain for many marginalized groups as compared to their majority peers. For example, Hispanic students are now the largest minority group in four-year colleges and universities (Fry 2011); yet despite their growing presence on college campuses, their persistence and attainment rates consistently fall behind those of other racial and ethnic groups (Solórzano, Villalpando, and Oseguera 2005). To help close these and other gaps, colleges and universities will need to ensure that campus climates affirm the value of diversity.

Factors Affecting Climate

Some scholars have asserted that Hispanics and other minority groups enter college with significantly different perceptions of their own academic capabilities and with different levels of confidence regarding their higher education success (see Núñez 2009). Others purport that this heightened sense of academic "self-consciousness" or "stigma" reflects the diminutive social status generally held by minorities in American society (see, for example, Solórzano and Villalpando 1998 or Guyll et al. 2010). These external factors, which arise before students even reach campus, interact with still other variables that are internal to the institution, and that influence how students experience the campus climate.

Focusing on within-institution factors, Hurtado et al. (1999) and others have attempted to codify the characteristics that significantly affect campus climate (including the history of the institution, compositional diversity, psychological variables, behavior and actions, and leadership), and have demonstrated that ethnic minorities view higher education climates and contexts differently than their majority peers. Many theories and models help explain the circumstances affecting the academic performance of racial and ethnic minority students (Fleming 2012), including financial barriers (Olivas 1997), limited early academic preparation (Garcia 2001), or difficulty acclimating to the academic and social milieu of higher learning environments (Hurtado, Carter, and Spuler 1996).

Generally, these findings speak directly to the importance of climate in facilitating educational success—or inversely, the role of climate in undermining academic achievement among specific student populations. Thus an institution's sensitivity to climate issues and their influence on diverse learners is vital to the creation of a campus climate that contributes appreciably to these learners' academic success.

The Chief Diversity Officer

As attention to diversity and campus climate has increased, a new role with direct responsibility for addressing climate issues has emerged: that of the chief diversity officer (CDO). Originating in the affirmative action or minority affairs offices of the 1960s and 1970s and drawing inspiration from the cultural affairs programmers of the 1980s and 1990s, today's CDO is expected to be both a higher education administrator and an accomplished scholar. Increasingly, the CDO is a tenured faculty member who is familiar with the synergistic effects of personal, social, economic, and cultural factors that influence college and university climates, and who can apply this knowledge toward realizing institutional diversity goals (Leon 2014). The CDO serves as a nexus of information on climate issues and on the work of academics who have studied diversity and equity in higher education.

Through a collaborative, unit-based, or portfolio model (Williams and Wade-Golden 2013), the CDO works with colleagues across the institution to create a campus climate that affirms the value of diversity and equity as vital aspects of the learning environment while also articulating the importance of actively engaging diversity as part of the intellectual development of graduates who will compete in a global marketplace. The CDO becomes indispensable as he or she works with faculty, staff, and student leaders to educate campus constituents about diversity issues and to help the school actualize its inclusive excellence objectives. These joint efforts should focus on eliminating barriers to student success, preventing the recurrence of concerns expressed by students, and remedying the impact of these concerns on individual students and the campus community.

Despite the CDO's critical role, more than a single staff member or office is needed to achieve a climate that supports excellence and equity. Educational environments are shaped each day by both subtle and overt interactions, processes, and behaviors that occur across the institution. Authentic and sustainable climate change necessitates engagement with the institution's history, a clear vision for inclusion and excellence, investment in the units and programs required to actuate an inclusive campus, systems of accountability to discourage corrosive practices, and recognition of effective measures and initiatives that measurably improve the success of diverse populations on campus. These are all areas where a CDO can exert leadership, but where he or she cannot achieve objectives in isolation of other campus stakeholders. Climate transformation thus requires partnerships within and beyond the institution, engaging stakeholders across campus and in the surrounding community.

The priorities of any higher education institution are immediately recognizable in the investments that the school makes. When colleges and universities invest resources in creating programs such as cross-cultural centers, ethnic studies programs, minority faculty and staff associations, gender equity initiatives, and campus-wide diversity and inclusion awards, they are demonstrating the high premium they place on inclusion and excellence. The key to climate change is to invest both material and human capital in implementing the practices that have been shown by research to significantly affect climate and students' resulting educational success.

Inclusive Conceptions of Diversity

Historically, some CDOs may have viewed campus climate issues exclusively through the lens of racial and ethnic identity; but campus climate issues also arise in relation to gender, age, sexual orientation, and other intersecting aspects of identity. All students are better able to engage academically and socially when they are in supportive environments where resources are organized to facilitate their success. Today's CDOs know that inclusive campuses value all members of the community by embracing diverse identities and eliminating barriers to success and completion.

For example, contemporary issues related to sexual violence speak to the significance of climate for gender equity on today's college campus. In May 2014, higher education administrators were shaken when the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) released the names of fifty-five institutions under investigation for possible violations of federal law due to inadequate prevention of and response to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence. The White House and the OCR have focused on campus climate as a critical tool in addressing sexual assault and sexual violence, with the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault (2014) recommending campus climate surveys as a means of identifying problematic behaviors and attitudes.

Campus leaders can take cues from the task force's guidance when working more broadly with underrepresented or marginalized students. These recommendations include engaging all students in efforts to create safe and welcoming environments. (In the case of sexual violence, while women are disproportionately affected, men also can be victims, and all students must be part of a comprehensive approach to prevention.) They also include responding consistently to incidents that affect the campus community, offering students safe and confidential reporting options and immediate access to resources and emphasizing the importance of partnerships and faculty and staff training.

Initiatives at Texas Tech

At Texas Tech University, we have instituted a number of programs that have improved the campus climate and contributed significantly to student success, particularly for students of color. From 2004–10, Texas Tech raised the graduation rates for Hispanic and African American students by more than 18 percentage points. Many of the initiatives and programs that influenced this increase in student success were coordinated or assisted by Texas Tech's Division of Institutional Diversity and its CDO.

The Cross-Cultural Academic Advancement Center (CCAAC) brings together academic units, faculty and staff associations, and student groups to collaborate on diversity programs and initiatives of joint interest. The CCAAC inaugurated the university's Celebrating Diversity Scholarship Dinner, Difficult Dialogues program, and Open Teaching Concept program, in which faculty from across campus open their classrooms on predetermined dates to students in different disciplines or courses for discussions focused on diversity, inclusion, and equity. The CCAAC also developed a series of university summits on the "state of education" for Hispanics, African Americans, and military veterans.

Now in its twelfth year, the Lauro Cavazos and Ophelia Powell-Malone Mentoring Program (Mentor Tech) program at Texas Tech offers faculty or staff mentors to help underrepresented students navigate the unfamiliar landscape of higher education. Named after the university's first African American graduate and first Hispanic president, the program seeks to enhance students' experiences through advocacy, affirmation, and community engagement.

PEGASUS (Pioneers in Education: Generations Achieving Scholarship and Unprecedented Success) offers monthly engagements, peer support, and relevant academic programming to first-generation college students. For students who entered the program during the 2012–13 academic year, the first-to-second-year retention rate was 92 percent, significantly higher than the overall Texas Tech undergraduate rate of 81.8 percent for the same period.

Recently, PEGASUS was recognized as one of the most successful programs for first-generation students in the nation. In addition, since its founding in 2010, the Military and Veterans Program (MVP) Office has helped quadruple the number of veterans and military dependents attending the university. These students bring diverse perspectives to the university community.

Texas Tech is addressing gender equity concerns with a Gender Equity Council that advises the president and a Sexual Violence Stakeholder Committee focused on prevention and education, policies and enforcement, and resources. The university also has added nursing rooms in central locations to support students and employees who are mothers. The women's studies department recently coordinated a panel discussion about rape culture and sexual harassment that prompted the American Association of University Women to recognize Texas Tech as one of seven schools that empower women and work to make campuses more equitable places for all students.

Institution-wide efforts like those described above, along with efforts within individual academic colleges, support areas, and auxiliaries, ensure that the campus climate reflects a commitment to preparing all students to compete in a diverse and demanding global workforce.


As former University of Michigan president Lee Bollinger writes, "our public universities have advanced the notion that in educating college students for the world they will inhabit, it is necessary to bring people together from diverse parts of society and to educate them in that context. Far from being optional or merely enriching, it is the very essence of what we mean by a liberal or humanistic education" (2007, B20). In order to shape a climate that allows for such an education, the CDO must work effectively across the campus to assist in conceptualizing and implementing climate-sensitive programs that are institutionally sustainable, academically relevant, and fundamentally transformative for all members of the campus community.


Bollinger, Lee. 2007. "Why Diversity Matters." Chronicle of Higher Education 53 (39): B20.

Fleming, Jacqueline. 2012. Enhancing Minority Student Retention and Academic Performance: What We Can Learn from Program Evaluations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fry, Richard. 2011. Hispanic College Enrollment Spikes, Narrowing Gaps with Other Groups. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.

Garcia, Eugene E. 2001. Hispanic Education in the United States: Raíces y Alas. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Guyll, Max, Stephanie Madon, Loreto Prieto, and Kyle C. Scherr. 2010. "The Potential Roles of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, Stigma Consciousness, and Stereotype Threat in Linking Latino/a Ethnicity and Educational Outcomes." Journal of Social Issues 66 (1): 113–30. 

Hurtado, Sylvia, Deborah Faye Carter, and Albert Spuler. 1996. "Latino Student Transition to College: Assessing Difficulty and Factors in Successful College Adjustment." Research in Higher Education 37 (2): 135–57.

Hurtado, Sylvia, Jeffrey Milem, Alma Clayton-Pedersen, and Walter Allen. 1999. Enacting Diverse Learning Environments: Improving the Climate for Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Higher Education. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 26 (8). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Leon, Raul A. 2014. "The Chief Diversity Officer: An Examination of the CDO Models and Strategies." Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 7 (2): 77–93.

Núñez, Anne-Marie. 2009. "Modeling the Effects of Diversity Experiences and Multiple Capitals on Latina/o College Students' Academic Self-Confidence." Journal of Hispanic Higher Education 8 (2): 179–96.

Olivas, Michael A. 1997. "Research on Latino College Students: A Theoretical Framework and Inquiry." In Latinos and Education: A Critical Reader, edited by Antonia Darder, Rodolfo D. Torres, and Henry Gutiérrez, 468–86. New York: Routledge.

Passel, Jeffrey S., and D'Vera Cohn. 2008. "US Population Projections: 2005–2050." Pew Hispanic Research Trends Project, February 11. http://www.pewhispanic.org/2008/02/11/us- population-projections-2005-2050/.

Solórzano, Daniel G., Octavio Villalpando, and Leticia Oseguera. 2005. "Educational Inequities and Latina/o Undergraduate Students in the United States: A Critical Race Analysis of Their Educational Progress." Journal of Hispanic Higher Education 4 (3): 272–94.

Solórzano, Daniel G., and Octavio Villalpando. 1998. "Critical Race Theory: Marginality and the Experiences of Students of Color in Higher Education. In Sociology of Education: Emerging Perspectives, edited by Carlos Alberto Torres and Theodore R. Mitchell, 211–24. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. 2014. Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files

Williams, Damon A., and Katrina C. Wade-Golden. 2013. The Chief Diversity Officer: Strategy, Structure, and Change Management. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. 

Juan Muñoz is a senior vice president and vice provost at Texas Tech University; Amy Murphy is the dean of students at Texas Tech University.

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