Published: Sept. 29, 2021 By

In October 2021, CU will launch the Campus Culture Survey for all faculty, staff, and students. A collaborative group of planners is hoping that broad participation in the survey will provide rich information to support decisions around resources and initiatives to further CU Boulder’s goals as delineated in the Inclusion, Diversity and Excellence in Academics (IDEA) Plan. As an institutional assessment process, the Campus Culture Survey asks important questions about how members of the campus community experience life and work, including items on sense of belonging, discrimination, and incivility. 

I want to use this space to put CU’s work in a broader context and consider the value of these efforts in higher education. What does it tell us about our campuses? Do climate assessments contribute to positive change?

The notion of “campus climate” began with rumblings in the 1950s, as student enrollment demographics were beginning to change. The GI Bill sent millions of working and middle class men to college (and sent women straight home, not to return until nearly two decades later). Returning Black soldiers who wanted to enroll in the same colleges were eligible to use the same Veterans benefits but were often denied in practice. 

Student activism increased on college campuses in the 1960s, calling for an end to racial discrimination and more representation in civic affairs. The adoption of Title IX in 1972 and growing numbers of women in colleges and universities during the 1970s and 80s drove interest in how (mostly white) women experienced discrimination, unequal treatment, and sexual violence in the student body and in the professoriate. The society was changing, and students and faculty were holding higher education accountable for being a progressive part of this change.

Survey instruments and guides for assessing the campus climate were published beginning in the 1990s with the goals of raising awareness and improving institutional policies. These assessments have evolved over time, but have typically focused on measuring institutional diversity in three ways:

  • Structural diversity--improving diversity by numbers with the belief that a critical mass would lead to a more positive experience for otherwise marginalized people;
  • Curricular and cocurricular activities--improving attitudes toward diversity to reduce bias; and 
  • Campus climate--understanding how personal experiences, perceptions, and expectations of campus diversity affect outcomes for various members of the campus community (Torres, 2010).

A body of research has grown up around these assessments, including validated survey instruments, assessment frameworks, and guides to transforming institutional culture. Diversity, equity, and inclusion continue to be important institutional goals. At the same time, many people who have long struggled for the realization of these goals are questioning whether the assessment efforts can really make a difference. 

In a meta-review of climate literature and survey instruments used on campuses since 1985, Hurtado, Griffin, Arellano, and Cuellar (2008) argued that climate assessments are an important part of institutional assessment practice, and the efforts to use the results proactively have generally improved over time. The authors contend that high quality instruments and processes have the potential to capture more than a “snapshot;” rather, they advocate for using climate data for longitudinal studies to understand campus culture over time. The authors also identify several gaps and areas for improvement.

Hurtado et. al. (2008) identified a number of challenges to getting or using good data to put together an accurate and deep analysis of the campus climate. A few key findings:

  • As White students--and White men, specifically--tend to report positive experiences overall, a low response rate from people of color can result in the underreporting of experiences of hostility and discrimination--such common experiences for people of color that the absence of these stories in institutional assessments would be suspicious. 
  • Failure to disaggregate results by demographics obscures the findings, making it seem like “everything is okay” when things may not be okay for certain groups. 
  • There is recent evidence that perceptions of a hostile campus climate can negatively impact sense of belonging and community--both of which are tied to student outcomes. 

This is true for all students on a diverse campus, and not just for students of color.

  • Climate assessments have primarily focused on race and ethnicity--and mostly Black students in particular--and have not given sufficient attention to the experiences of others known to experience the university as hostile. These assessments must also ask about the experiences of other marginalized groups on campus.
  • The majority of climate assessment surveys have been conducted with students only, and not enough is known about the experiences of faculty, staff, and administrators. The university as a workplace has generally been neglected in climate research.

For a long time, it was believed that increasing diversity across the campus would positively affect the climate. We now know that it is not so simple. Culture is complex and multidimensional, and institutional culture is particular to each institution. The mix of people and place make for a unique history and legacy that also requires unique interventions. 

CU’s current efforts to collect information about the campus culture and climate are moving these efforts forward, addressing the concerns that Hurtado et. al. identified in their meta-review. Will this assessment capture all of that cultural complexity? Given the state of the field of research, that seems like an unrealistic expectation. We will not have perfect data, but it can be a big step forward in making change. Assessment is meant to be ongoing, constantly informing our work, and the Campus Culture Survey is an important part of institutional assessment. But assessment does not stop with a big data report; it is what we choose to do with that data that will make a difference. Assessment can and should be an opportunity to help people across campus to tell their stories.


Hurtado, S., Griffin, K. A., Arellano, L., & Cuellar, M. (2008). Assessing the value of climate assessments: Progress and future directions. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 1(4), 204–221.

Torres, V. (2010. Assessment and student diversity. In G. L. Kramer & R. L. Swing (Eds.), Higher Education Assessments: Leadership Matters (pp. 59-71). American Council on Education.

The Campus Culture Survey: What is it, and What Do We Hope to Learn? Interview with Julie Volckens