Diversity and Democracy

Another Inconvenient Truth: Capturing Campus Climate and Its Consequences

Just as Al Gore's 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth brought attention to a global climate crisis, research is heightening awareness of another pressing climate issue: that of climates on our college campuses. Studies continue to indicate that campus climates affect a variety of college outcomes, especially diversity outcomes (Dey 1991; Hurtado et al. 2003; Mayhew, Grunwald, and Dey 2005). Diversity outcomes--including contributing to larger communities and taking seriously the perspectives of others--are goals shared by educational efforts focused on personal and social responsibility. AAC&U's Templeton-funded initiative, Core Commitments, takes the challenge to educate for responsible ethical behavior head on. Researchers at the University of Michigan are assisting participating institutions in examining some of the inconvenient truths revealed when campuses investigate how their climates can impede or facilitate student learning and behavior.

Understanding and Capturing Campus Climate

With respect to diversity, researchers have argued that the campus climate and its impact involve four connected elements: institutional context, structural diversity, psychological (perceptual) dimensions, and behavioral dimensions (Hurtado et al. 1998). Schools that are consistent across these four elements are able to enhance student outcomes through the creation of strong, supportive, and unified campus cultures.

But measuring alignment of the four elements presents certain challenges. Campus climate data are generally perceptual in nature, complicating the task of capturing what an institution is actually doing. Contradictory climate data may point to: (a) lack of awareness about existing programs and practices, (b) lack of impact of programs and practices on the institutional culture, or (c) actual gaps in programs and practices. Climate information helps institutions probe further into the sources of discrepancies.

The Personal and Social Responsibility Institutional Inventory

Using data from a new set of instruments called the Personal and Social Responsibility Institutional Inventory (PSRII), the research team for AAC&U's Core Commitments project helped campuses understand what kind of learning environments they were actually offering students. Core Commitments aims to reclaim and revitalize the academy's role in fostering students' development of personal and social responsibility. At the project's core are five key dimensions:

  1. Striving for excellence: developing a strong work ethic and consciously doing one's very best in all aspects of college;
  2. Cultivating personal and academic integrity: recognizing and acting on a sense of honor, ranging from honesty in relationships to principled engagement with a formal academic honors code;
  3. Contributing to a larger community: recognizing and acting on one's responsibility to the educational community and the wider society, locally, nationally, and globally;
  4. Taking seriously the perspectives of others: recognizing and acting on the obligation to inform one's own judgment; engaging diverse and competing perspectives as a resource for learning, citizenship, and work;
  5. Developing competence in ethical and moral reasoning: incorporating the other four responsibilities and using such reasoning in learning and in life.

The PSRII consists of attitudinal and behavioral questions (including questions that are open ended) across the five dimensions and is tailored for each of four constituent groups (students, faculty, student affairs staff, and administrators). It is designed to gauge participants' perceptions about the opportunities for learning and engagement with issues of personal and social responsibility across institutional domains.

Work on the PSRII began in 2006 under the direction of Lee Knefelkamp and Richard Hersh with research assistance from Lauren Ruff. Researchers carefully designed the survey with a basis in psychology and developmental literatures. A team at the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education (Dey and Associates 2008) refined the inventory and gathered data from twenty-three schools participating in the Core Commitments Leadership Consortium. The overall survey response rate was 28 percent among students and 47 percent among professionals. Results were statistically adjusted to account for bias in response patterns.

Learning from Campus Climate Data

PSRII data clearly demonstrate that the campus community views developing personal and social responsibility as an important rather than an elective component of a college education.

Across the board, students, faculty, administrators, and student affairs staff on the twenty-three campuses believe that personal and social responsibility should be a major focus of attention at their own college or university (see fig. 1). But despite the perceived value of such education, all surveyed groups reported that their campuses were not focusing enough attention on these issues. Data reveal a dramatic gap between "should be" and "is."

Figure 1: Importance of promoting personal and
social responsibility on campus

Figure 1


Other data indicate that students report having grown in terms of personal and social responsibility during college (see fig. 2). More than 40 percent of students viewed themselves as having developed in all areas except contributing to a larger community, even when insufficient opportunities exist. Campus professionals share the same perception, but are more reserved in their assessments.

Figure 2: Do students leave college having become stronger
across these dimensions?

Figure 2


The data raise the question: If institutions can close the gap between "should be" and "is currently," might student gains climb to even higher numbers?


Campus climate surveys such as the PSRII are vital to examining the "real" versus the "ideal" view of campus environments and the inconvenient truth that these views are often dissimilar. The PSRII is intended to encourage vigorous dialogue among students, campus professionals, and higher education leaders. This dialogue should lead to enhanced opportunities for students to cultivate a commitment to excellence and integrity, to engage across differences on and off campus, and to develop moral discernment and action in their public and private lives. Institutionally focused PSRII data can help campus leaders identify how to enhance awareness of existing programs and fill gaps in current practices. Surveys like this one help leaders develop an institutional climate that can unequivocally educate students for personal and social responsibility.


Dey, E. L. 1991. Perceptions of the college environment: An analysis of organizational, interpersonal, and behavioral influences. PhD diss., University of California-Los Angeles.

Dey, E. L., and Associates. 2008. Should colleges focus more on personal and social responsibility? Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hurtado, S., E. L. Dey, P. Gurin, and G. Gurin. 2003. The college environment, diversity, andstudent learning. In Higher education: Handbook of theory and research, eds. J. Smart and W. Tierney, 143-189. Amsterdam: Kluwer Academic Press.

Hurtado, S., J. F. Milem, A. R. Clayton-Pedersen, and W. R. Allen. 1998. Enhancing campus climates for racial/ethnic diversity. Review of Higher Education 21 (3): 279-302.

Mayhew, M. J., H. E. Grunwald, and E. L. Dey. 2005. Curriculum matters: Creating a positive climate for diversity from the student perspective. Research in Higher Education 46 (4): 389-412.

Note: This article was drawn from material prepared by members of the University of Michigan's Core Commitments Research Group, including Mary Antonaros, Cassie Barnhardt, Matthew Holsapple, Karen Moronski, and Veronica Vergoth. 

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