What Does a Healthy PSU Climate Look Like?

Campus ClimateA few weeks ago I was invited to talk about classroom climate. Close to 400 staff in our Enrollment Management and Student Affairs (EMSA) division gathered in the Smith Ballroom for a session on “Equity, diversity and inclusion through a health and well-being lens.”

I found myself drawing heavily on my experiences at Portland State and other universities I had been at. In particular, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where I served for a number of years as the Associate Vice Chancellor of Campus Climate. Cool title, right? My duties were to provide leadership and oversight of the campus-wide human resources office, equity and compliance, affirmative action, multicultural student activities, faculty hiring/tenure/promotion, and leadership development for department chairs and deans.

What does campus climate really mean?
As a geographer, I have relied on my knowledge that there is a difference between the study of climatology and meteorology, and a difference between climate and weather.

I define campus climate as “the prevailing conditions used under which our students learn and which employees work.” Campus weather is “what happens on a daily basis or a single instance.” The distinction is important because weather can vary day-to-day, as can someone’s experiences on campus, but climate is an indication of long term conditions and patterns.

There is risk in generalizing climate across a large and complex organization like PSU, and value in recognizing that there are micro-climates that vary from one unit and/or one person.

How does classroom climate relate?
In speaking with the EMSA staff, I shared a definition of classroom climate by Ambrose et al. (2010). They define classroom climate as “the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn.”
They continue, “Climate is determined by a constellation of interacting factors that include faculty-student interaction, the tone instructors set, instances of stereotyping or tokenism, the course demographics (for example, relative size of racial and other social groups enrolled in the course), student-student interaction, and the range of perspectives represented in the course content and materials.”

The importance of classroom climate:
At PSU, due to the very nature of the student population, our students spend most of their on-campus time in class. It is where they have the most interaction with faculty and fellow students. Stereotypes, tone, student-to-student interactions, faculty-to-student interactions, and course content can all influence classroom climate. There is a significant body of literature on how to manage and improve campus climate.

Suggestions include:

  • Incorporating diversity into courses and using inclusive teaching practices
  • Creating collaborative learning opportunities for students to get to know one another
  • Including diversity statements in syllabi
  • Addressing incivilities right away
  • Establishing ground rules
  • Checking in with students periodically about the climate in the class
  • Making efforts to connect with students

We all have a responsibility for creating a great climate at PSU. We cannot expect it to be the work of one person to improve the climate on campus–it must be the work of everyone. There are numerous efforts underway at PSU to improve the climate; including a collaboration with the Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion and Portland State’s Diversity Action Council on  the 2014-15 PSU Cultural Competency Training Series. The trainings are geared to PSU faculty, staff and students and will explore various diversity issues including race, sexuality, gender, disability and socioeconomic class. Ongoing workshops will address different aspects of the work to be done to promote an inclusive environment at PSU. The series will strive to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes, celebrate differences and intersect commonalities in people, cultures and community.  We hope you will attend one or more of the events.

At the same time, it also takes leadership. That is why I am delighted to be chairing the search for a new Chief Diversity Officer to direct our Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion at PSU. The person we hire will be an important member of the university leadership team. Stay tuned for details and progress on this search.

I welcome dialog on the topic of campus climate. I hope you will share your thoughts and strategies.

First day at CLSB

3 thoughts on “What Does a Healthy PSU Climate Look Like?

  1. Nice blog and timely given your role in CDO search. However I think you are focusing the notion of “climate” much too narrowly on diversity and tolerance. At least as important are issues like: level of intellectual excitement; professional/vocational vs intellectual focus; community engagement vs internal campus life focus; level of school spirit; institutional pride; feelings of abundance vs scarcity; morale; ambitiousness vs complacency; self confidence; “cool” factor.

    All of those influence who is attracted to come here for study or work; who is retained; and how successful we are likely to be in the future.


  2. Climate is so important and may be one of the factors we can work to improve that will actually increase the retention and graduation of our students. (See Tinto, 1975, 1993, 2005.)


  3. I appreciate that climate is sometimes just being able to laugh and connect with leadership in the elevator during a busy day. (Which I thank you for, Sona!) But of course, there are more complex and important things happening in classrooms and around campus as well.

    I appreciate President Wiewel’s comments too. Given these opportunities to connect, think, create, discuss and reflect, we will create a place that our community is invested in (and benefiting from) for generations to come. #goviks


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