Campus Climate 2010: Defining The Terms

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As promised, I’m going to be reporting this week on the 2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People. This new study is a tome of information about the experiences of individuals on college campuses but also an important guide to understanding campus climate research. I won’t be sharing all of its contents; in fact, I strongly urge any professionals out there who work with higher education to purchase your own copy through Campus Pride.

While this is a thorough research study, there is still valuable (if not crucial) data through its pages that demonstrate a sense of urgency for our whole society. Universities are often seen as liberal, welcoming environments, but this exhaustive study shows that for members of the queer community, the campus climate is often anything but welcoming.

I will be offering various posts about it throughout the week, but I want to start today with a primer for how this research was conducted. Because of its scope and density, it can be hard to approach, and there is a lot to be learned simply from the methods of the researchers. I hope this post is a helpful guide for understanding the results.

Overlapping Identities

What makes this study so complex is that the sample has a variety of overlapping identities. It’s not quite as simple as having one control and one variable. There are numerous variables, and aspects of the sample overlap in ways that can be confusing at first.

For example, the 5,149 respondents included undergraduate students (46%), graduate students (17%), faculty members (10%), staff members (21%), and administrators (7%) from campuses in all 50 states. That means that throughout the results, “respondents” does not mean just students. Obviously, the data is analyzed to control for different roles on campus; however, most of the results speak to all respondents’ perceptions.

Consider, then, the different intersections of gender identity, gender expression, sexual identity, and race and it’s clear to see that there are a lot of different overlapping groups. This is all important to understand for folks who might think that campus climate is only determined by students, or for folks who think there are only two discreet groups: queer folks and non-queer folks.

Campus Climate

It is obviously important to define the concept of campus climate, since that is what is measured by this study. There is a very detailed review of how climate has been defined as well as the different ways it has (and hasn’t) been studied. I think the Transformational Tapestry Model conceptualized by Rankin and Reason (2008) offers the best understanding of this concept. Campus climate is defined as

current attitudes, behaviors and standards, and practices of employees and students of an institution.

According to the model, there are six independent, yet interconnected areas that influence campus climate:

» Access and retention (i.e., includes access to higher education and provision of the necessary supports for success and retention)

» Research and scholarship (i.e., includes encouragement of diversity in educational and scholarly activity)

» Inter- and intra-group relations (i.e., includes diverse student body with educationally purposeful interventions and interactions)

» Curriculum and pedagogy (i.e., includes diversity education and proactive educational interventions)

» University policies and services (i.e., includes university commitment to diversity and social justice through response to harassment, and written and behavioral policies)

» External relationships (i.e., includes acknowledgment of and response to external influences in society and government)

When a campus climate is perceived as negative, it can impact students’ educational performance, attrition, and adjustment, as well as the personal and professional development and retention of employees.

In terms of sexual identity, there has been limited study of campus climates, and in terms of gender identity (particularly for those outside the gender binary), there has been virtually none. This is by far the most comprehensive study of campus climates for LGBTQQ individuals.

Sexual Identity (LGBQ) and Gender Identity (Trans and GNC)

One of the most interesting things about this study is what it reveals about how individuals identify. Participants were asked a variety of questions with the opportunity to open answer any of them. They were asked about their birth sex, their gender identity, their gender expression, their sexual identity (the term they use), and who they are attracted to. This was then coded to create two general groups.

In terms of sexual identity, respondents were grouped as LGBQ or Heterosexual. Due to a small number of responses, respondents who identified as “asexual” or “don’t know” were not included in analyses regarding sexual identity. It is interesting to note here that while 53% of respondents were gay, lesbian or similar, 12.3% identified as bisexual and 15.8% identified as queer. This might surprise some who are unaware of the way “queer” is growing in popularity as a self-identifier. It was a more prominent term for students (about 20%), but was also used by faculty (11.2 %), staff (9.6%), and administrators (7.5%).

In terms of gender identity, respondents were grouped as men and women, transgender masculine spectrum (birth sex female), transgender feminine spectrum (birth sex male), and gender non-conforming (GNC). Another interesting note here is that more individuals identified as GNC (8.1%) than as transmasculine or transfeminine combined (5.4%). This speaks to the same sense of ambiguity achieved by the sexual identity of “queer.”

It’s important to note that sexual identity and gender identity are two separate breakdowns of the sample and are not mutually exclusive. There are likely respondents who would fall under both the LGBQ and Trans/GNC groupings as well as respondents who only fall into one group or the other. This is important to remember when analyzing the results in regard to these two identifiers.

Intersections with Racial Identity

This study also looks at the interactions of race with sexual identity and gender identity. A bit less than a quarter of respondents identified as one of the “People of Color” categories, which included “African, “African American/Black,” Alaskan Native, “Asian,” “Asian American,” Southeast Asian,” “Caribbean/West Indian,” “Latin American,” “Latino(a)/Hispanic,” “Middle Eastern,” “Native American,” and “Pacific Islander/Hawaiian Native.”

Respondents could identify with multiple identities. I think it’s helpful to see the care taken to create inclusive categories for these identities, which is the only reason I reproduce them here.


I also want to offer the definition of the word “harassment” used by the study, as some may not understand the breadth of this term. Harassment is:

Exclusionary (e.g., shunned, ignored), intimidating, offensive and/or hostile conduct (harassing behavior) that had interfered with their ability to work or learn on their campus within the past year.

This is a slightly more nuanced definition from United States Code.

Forms of harassment revealed by the study include:

» Receiving derogatory remarks
» Feeling deliberately ignored or excluded
» Feeling isolated or left out
» Observing others staring
» Being singled out as a resident authority to their identity
» Feeling intimidated or bullied
» Fearing getting a bad grade because of a hostile classroom environment
» Receiving low performance evaluations
» Receiving derogatory written comments
» Being assumed of admission or hire because of identity
» Fearing for physical safety
» Being victim of a crime
» Being target of graffiti
» Being target of physical violence

What To Expect…

In the coming days, I’ll be writing with more detail about the study’s findings. Look forward to reading about what respondents are experiencing, what perceptions respondents have of campus climate, individual and institutional responses to campus climate, and potential best practices.

This is important research and I hope that my posts can make it more tangible for folks who won’t have access to the full study or who might struggle to wade through all the data.

If you have any questions about what I’ve shared so far, please feel free to include them in the comments.

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