Campus Self Study Finds Positive Academic Experiences, Discontent Outside the Classroom

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Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This past Friday, Swarthmore released the findings of the campus-wide climate Self-Study on Learning, Working, and Living conducted in Spring 2015.

The presentation and analysis of the findings were given by Sue Rankin, founder of Rankin & Associates, the consulting firm that conducted the study. The full report, pdf presentation, and video recording of the presentation can be found online and the full report is also on reserve at McCabe Library.

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The overall response rate to the survey was 38%, and was broken down into a 34% response rate for students, 47% response rate for faculty, and a 43% response rate for staff. Rankin pointed out that surveys generally need a response rate of at least 30% for the results to be considered significant, and emphasized that this survey did include response bias because no member of the community was forced to take the survey. For example, there was a disproportionately high number of white students and women represented and a disproportionately low number of student respondents. Rankin explained that the sample included the entire school because in order to get a holistic sense of climate, the survey makers wanted to ensure that even very small minority groups could have a chance to respond.

One prominent finding that Rankin pointed out was the widespread culture of fear on campus. Employees of the college tend to be very afraid for their jobs. One anonymous respondent called Rankin & Associates after filling out their survey asking for their information to be removed from the dataset, fearing that their responses made them identifiable and that they would be fired from their job because of their answers, Rankin said.

The survey found that students (80%) and faculty (90%) are most comfortable in the classroom and feel positively about their academic experiences. At the same time, a quarter of the community has experienced exclusionary conduct at Swarthmore within the last year, and about half of the community knows someone who has experienced such conduct. 61% of faculty, 60% of staff, and 41% of students have seriously considered leaving Swarthmore.

Of students who seriously considered leaving Swarthmore, 70% did so within their first year here. The majority of the reasons students want to leave stem from lacking a sense of belonging or because the coursework is overwhelming.

Of staff who experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, or hostile conduct on campus, 45% believe this conduct was due to their position status (ex. discrimination against hourly workers), far more than faculty or students. Faculty also tended to experience this type of conduct at the hands of other faculty, as was the case with students, whereas staff were most likely to experience harassment or discrimination from their supervisors. Rankin believes that this is likely due to lack of job training, which was one of the weaknesses highlighted in the comment sections. Many department chairs or facilities managers, for example, often get thrown into those positions without any training at all. She said, “Folks without the tools to do the jobs become bullies because they have no other way to lead.”

The chart below provides a breakdown of the different reasons the respondents believed they experienced exclusionary conduct. It is worth noting that Swarthmore is disproportionately high compared to peer institutions with respect to discrimination based on political views.

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More than a third of faculty also felt that Swarthmore has discriminatory promotion and tenure practices. In the comments one respondent said, “I think that sometimes hiring is based on reverse discrimination and white candidates are passed over so that Swarthmore can be ‘politically correct.’” Another said, “There were many opportunities to hire people of color, but it did not happen.”

While the percentage of Swarthmore respondents who experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct was similar to other institutions (24%), the percentage of people who observed such conduct was far higher. While 30-35% of respondents in comparable studies observed exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct within the past year, 49% of Swarthmore respondents did.

“You could say this is negative. I don’t think so–I think it’s positive,” Ratlin said. “Why is it positive? Because people notice. They actually see it when it happens. That doesn’t mean it’s good, but at least they notice it.”

The study also found that 7% of respondents had experienced unwanted sexual contact at some point during their time at Swarthmore, compared to 3-5% at similar institutions. Of these, 81.6% said it occurred during their first two semesters.


Just over a quarter of the students who experienced unwanted sexual contact sought support from a campus resource, and only half of those students said they felt supported.

Some of the students who did not feel supported elaborated on their answer in a comment section. One respondent wrote that their case “was completely mishandled. I was invalidated. I was told that boys’ brains don’t fully develop until they’re 25 so that’s why it happened. The investigation took far too long and was inadequate. I wasn’t kept in the loop about what was happening with the investigation. Staff told me that I was lying repeatedly in writing about things I am sure I was telling the truth about. My home address and cellphone number were given out to my perpetrator. It was beyond awful.”

Another respondent wrote that their case was essentially ignored after they indicated they were not sure if they wanted to pursue judicial proceedings. Meanwhile, their assailant remained on campus as their TA.

“My assailant was a serial perpetrator, and assaulted another woman just over a month after I reported. I later found out I had been (at least) his fourth victim. I only discovered this MONTHS after I had pushed to have my case re-opened and re-examined. I felt (and still feel) the school was responsible for this young woman’s attack, as they did nothing to prevent him from hurting people again. I still feel as though I was ignored throughout the entire process, from report to sanctions,” the respondent wrote.

The survey was originally met with some degree of criticism from the student body. Claudia Lo ‘16 described it in a Daily Gazette opinions article as “woefully, breathtakingly bad,” due to the survey’s format and wording of the questions. Those concerns were addressed by the student members of the committee in the comments, but do not seem to have been discussed by the committee as a whole.  

“It was difficult for me to read that stuff, frankly, because it’s not my first rodeo,” Rankin said. “Every survey is going to be criticized. I can’t ask every possible question every single individual group wants to have answered. My hope is that we got to a lot of the concerns and got results bearing out some of the things students were concerned about in that particular article.”

Ultimately, Rankin reiterated that this report merely gives a picture of the campus climate, but does not try to offer prescriptive solutions. “I don’t live here. I can’t give you what you should do. When you come up with the actions, I can offer you some potential best practices that I know have worked at other places,” Rankin said. “But you in the community need to figure out what the actions are. What are the things that come to the top here for you, and how do we address them together? Some of those dialogues are going to be tough, and make people feel uncomfortable. No learning happens unless someone feels uncomfortable.”

Going forward, the College plans to further review the results during the rest of the semester before discussing them in a series of community fora in Spring 2016, which the College will use to develop 3-4 action steps.

Matthew Chaffinch

Matthew is a junior from Delaware. He is a Contributing Editor for The Daily Gazette.

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