College self study results reveal discontent among students, faculty, staff

On Friday, during two separate presentations in the Lang Performing Arts Center, Dr. Sue Rankin, principal researcher at the consulting firm Rankin & Associates, revealed to students, faculty and staff the results of the college’s Self-Study on Learning, Working, and Living. The survey, which was available online to faculty, staff, and students at the college from March 11th to April 15th of last spring, contained 100 survey items – both qualitative and quantitative – to determine what Rankin & Associates call “campus climate,” or “the current attitudes, behaviors, standards and practices of employees and students of an institution.” While the survey revealed that campus climate at the college is largely consistent with trends across other institutions of higher education, the college was an outlier in many respects with exceptionally high rates of mental illness, financial hardship for students caused by traveling home for breaks, and pressure on staff to work extra hours unpaid.

“A survey like this hasn’t happened at Swarthmore in the past,” explained Diane Anderson, Dean of Academic Affairs at the college. “It was something that grew out of having a Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development who was really invested in these issues. I’m also not going to pretend that the spring of 2013 didn’t happen and didn’t influence the construction of the survey.”

According to Anderson, both former Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development Lili Rodriguez and the concerned students of the “spring of our discontent,” referring to the spring of 2013, expressed a need to provide a forum to hear the perspectives of the diverse constituencies that comprise the wider campus community in order to understand how different groups and identities experience the college.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and call it a really sweet spot of opportunity to be the best that we can be, to be the model of a community that knows itself,” Anderson explained. “We need to set up a process to keep examining ourselves but to do something about this self, a self that has room for improvement.”

By soliciting responses from the entire student, faculty, and staff populations, the Rankin & Associates survey provides a snapshot of collective impressions as well as the thoughts and perceptions of particular individuals, which can be used to inform the development of strategic initiatives and potential best practices for addressing challenges.

In total, 980 faculty, staff, and students responded to the survey for a campus-wide response rate of 38%. According to Rankin, this rate was on par with that of other colleges and universities where Rankin & Associates administered self-studies. Because the number is over 30%, the survey can be considered generalizable to the experiences of the larger campus population.

While the survey results reveal that a moderate majority of students, faculty, and staff feel generally comfortable with the living, learning, and working environments at the college, they also indicate that on the whole, respondents felt less comfortable than their peers at other colleges and universities. 64% of all respondents indicated being “comfortable” or “very comfortable” with the campus climate at the college, which – while indicative of general satisfaction – is a notably lower rate of comfort than that of most other surveyed institutions.

“Usually these numbers are more around 80%,” explained Rankin. “At some schools, we had response rates of comfort as high as 88%, so Swarthmore is definitely on the lower end of the spectrum.”

According to Rankin, when this data is broken down into constituent groups, the responses appear more concerning, revealing the need to address the discomfort felt by some particularly vulnerable constituencies at the college.

“Several groups indicated that they were significantly less comfortable on campus than the majority,” Rankin said. “This matches the literature on this where historically underserved groups feel less comfortable than others.”

As Rankin explained, differentiating respondents by gender identity, racial identity, sexual identity, and disability status revealed that several key constituencies reported feeling less comfortable with the campus, workplace, and classroom environments than their majority counterparts. In particular, trans faculty and students, faculty and students of color, and LGBQ faculty and students, and faculty and students with multiple disabilities all felt significantly less comfortable in the classroom than did their cisgender, white, heterosexual, and non-disabled peers.

Divergent rates of comfort among disabled students were particularly concerning to Rankin. 25% of all respondents indicated having one or more disabilities that substantially affected learning, working, or living activities. Most striking for Rankin was the fact that an exceptionally high 15% of respondents indicated having a mental illness, making the college’s mental health profile a notable deviation from the trends observed at other institutions.

“A significant percentage of people reported having a psychological condition, particularly anxiety and depression,” Rankin said. “This was an outlier. Nowhere else that we surveyed was there such a high rate of mental illness. While this could be in part because there is a tolerant and accepting culture around mental illness at Swarthmore, so people feel more comfortable talking about mental illness, it’s still important to look at. There are many people here with diagnosed mental illnesses…and this impacts their experiences on campus both academically and otherwise.”

Furthermore, according to Rankin, the fact that a vast majority of students also reported being overburdened with assignments and stressed by a desire to perform academically was heavily correlated with the high rates of mental illness reported. Only 60% of students said that they felt they were performing up to their full academic potential, while only 54% of students felt that they were performing as well as they had anticipated that they would academically. 23% of students reported that they had considered leaving the college because of the workload.

“It’s not that Swarthmore is academically rigorous – because that’s what we’re here for – but come on, we’re killing them,” Rankin said. “Pulling an all nighter is part of college, but pulling an all nighter multiple times throughout the week is too much. It’s taking its toll. Reading the qualitative responses you can see that their self esteem is in their shoe laces around academics. They get a B+, and they’re freaking out. We have to find a medium. Students are succeeding, but it’s killing them.”

The burdens of the high workload fell most heavily on students of color, first generation students, and low income students, all of whom had significantly lower rates of perceived academic success than their wealthier, white peers. For example, only 8% of respondents of color, 11% of low income students, and an unmeasurably small percentage of first generation students indicated that they strongly agreed with the statement “I have performed academically as well as I anticipated I would.” Almost double the number of students of color who said they “strongly agreed” with this statement said that they in fact “strongly disagreed.”

Low income students, first generation students, and students of color also faced financial hardships that many of their majority counterparts did not face. Most of these hardships, such as affording tuition and affording books, mirrored trends of financial inaccessibility seen at other surveyed institutions, however, the college was unique in the difficulty that many students reported facing in regards to shouldering the cost of traveling home over breaks.

“Swarthmore is an outlier in the high expense of traveling home for vacations,” Rankin said. “23% said they experienced financial hardship in this area, and many students said in the qualitative section that they were homeless over breaks. That’s an actionable item, I think.”

According to Anderson, while data regarding these “exceptional” and “outlier” features of the college’s climate are undoubtedly concerning in that they reveal certain hardships unique to the college, they do not come as a shock to most administrators.

“It’s not surprising,” said Anderson. “And I say that as somebody in the Dean’s Office who works with students who struggle with such issues as health challenges and the hidden costs of college every day. What’s important now is that it’s logged and its quantifiable. Students leave every four years, so you have to make sure that when you have data like these…and when you lift up those challenges you don’t put them behind a curtain. You keep them lifted up and you get them into the world of problem solving.”

As Anderson explained, however, addressing concerns particular to students is just one of the many necessary steps of addressing overall campus climate. Faculty – and particularly staff – perceptions of working at the college must also be addressed in order to foster meaningful environmental change.

The self-study revealed that while most faculty and staff felt that the college was supportive of flexible work schedules, that their opinions were respected in college committees, and that they had supervisors who gave them career advice and guidance when they asked, many important issues were raised in regards to salaries, discrimination and harassment, hiring practices, equipment quality, opportunities for upward mobility, and benefits such as childcare.

Many staff reported being intimidated or bullied, targeted by derogatory remarks, feeling ignored or excluded, or experiencing a hostile work environment. 44% of staff affirmed that they had experienced “exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct,” while in the workplace, and while most of this conduct came from fellow co-workers, 8% came from students. According to Rankin, the rate at which staff indicated being discriminated against or harassed due to their position was the same as the rate at which trans respondents reported being discriminated against or harassed for their sexual identity.

In the qualitative comments section of the survey, staff members reported being “pushed,” “shoved,” “yelled at,” and having their desk slammed angrily by a supervisor. Many staff members also indicated feeling actively excluded from community events and disregarded by faculty. One staff respondent reported being barred by faculty from attending a reception following an open lecture, while another reported a lack of collaboration and coordination between faculty and staff.

“Staff are routinely dismissed by faculty,” another respondent explained. “I’ve never experienced the level of dismissal from faculty that I have here.”

Rankin explained that while such environmental trends were typical of all of the institutions she had surveyed, they were incredibly harmful to the larger functioning of the campus community.

“When staff don’t feel included in the community, they miss more days of work and perform less on their jobs,” Rankin explained. “We underutilize staff brain power in higher education. Our staff are brilliant and we don’t use that.”

Anderson agreed.

“I’ve always believed that institutions do best by the people they serve if the people who are working in those institutions are feeling valued and fulfilled in the work that they do,” Anderson said. “A lot of people are doing a whole lot of good and hard work in this institution, but aren’t feeling valued.”

On the whole, faculty and staff felt that too much was being asked of them without sufficient compensation. 30% of staff reported being asked to work extra hours without pay, making the college an outlier, according to Rankin, in comparison to other surveyed institutions where staff felt significantly less burdened by uncompensated overtime.

Faculty also felt unfairly pressured to damage their work-life balance by attending community events, lectures, and committee meetings outside of normal hours that interfered with their childcare or eldercare responsibilities. Overall, 60% of staff and 61% of faculty indicated having seriously considered leaving the college within the past year.

While the data provided by the Rankin & Associates report appears to offer a somewhat negative portrait of the living, learning, and working environments at the college, Rankin cautioned against taking the data as a complete or wholly representative diagnosis of campus climate. Rankin expressed many of the survey’s limitations including a low response rate amongst students, a disproportionately high proportion of white, female respondents in comparison with actual campus demographics, and the inevitabilities of selection bias. Despite these shortcomings, however, Rankin explained that the data reported should not be discounted.

“Even though only 510 students responded, if even 10 of those students say they have been sexually assaulted or they have felt discriminated against, or they can’t afford to go home over break, and they feel that the administration isn’t addressing those things, that’s something I want to know,” Rankin said.

Anderson agreed.

“We often think of self selection as an opportunity for people to tell a bad story, complain, or voice a concern, but so what?” she said. “What if there is self selection in who took the survey? Would that make their reporting and their experiences invalid? Not to me. Somebody asked me if the numbers in general don’t diverge that much from other colleges and universities then maybe that’s what humans do. It made me think as a parent when my kids would come home and say ‘You should let me do this because this is what everybody else does.’ Is that good enough for Swarthmore, a place that prides itself on social justice and a very well articulated mission of inclusivity and diversity?”

Moving forward, Anderson explained, there will be meetings between faculty, staff, and students to discuss how these data can inform where the college can improve and install new best practices to address the concerns revealed by the survey. According to Anderson, before the end of the 2015-2016 academic year, the college has promised to institute three to four concrete actions directly aimed at improving campus climate. In addition, further emphasis will be placed on fostering collaboration between different constituencies, putting staff, faculty, and students together in conversation to address problems that affect the whole community.

“I can’t do it alone, the working group can’t, Sue Rankin can’t, senior leadership can’t, students can’t, no one can do this alone,” Anderson said. “Two heads really are better than one. This is going to take work and it’s going to take listening. We are very analytical people here. We know how to critique, but the challenge now is to generate and create.”

 

2 thoughts on “College self study results reveal discontent among students, faculty, staff

  • November 20, 2015 at 1:55 am
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    I’m very sorry, but I thought college was where you go to, among other things, learn to be an adult. Deal with stress instead of whining about how rough it is at the $60,000/year country club. Once you stop being the customer, the world doesn’t really care about what you think or feel. Life is an uncomfortable place sometimes.

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  • November 25, 2015 at 4:46 am
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    Reply

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