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University of Iowa climate study finds disparities for minorities, conservatives

'Climate is one of the most prevalent reasons why people are considering leaving'

People walk down the sidewalk on Iowa Avenue as the Old Capitol Building sits behind them in the snow in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
People walk down the sidewalk on Iowa Avenue as the Old Capitol Building sits behind them in the snow in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

More than 40 percent of politically conservative University of Iowa undergraduates consider the campus a somewhat or very hostile environment for their demographic, compared with 18 percent of their non-conservative counterparts.

Just 49 percent of conservative students report feeling their political beliefs are respected on campus, compared with 96 percent of liberal students and 88 percent who identify themselves as moderates, according to new findings from the campus’ first-ever comprehensive climate surveys.

The climate data, made public Thursday, paint a picture of overall satisfaction with the UI campus experience, while highlighting several areas of disparity, including among politically conservative students and underrepresented minorities.

The surveys were administered by email last spring to undergraduate and graduate students, along with faculty and staff. The response rate was highest among faculty – at 33 percent – compared with 21 percent for staff and 19 percent for undergraduate students.

Although the 4,000-some undergraduate response total was down slightly from similar climate surveys in years past, administrators said the findings offer a valid snapshot of the broader campus climate.

“Somewhere in the 20 percent range is what most campus climate surveys get nationwide,” said Sarah Bruch, assistant professor in the UI Department of Sociology, director of the Social and Education Policy Research Program at the Public Policy Center, and co-chair of the UI Charter Committee on Diversity.

“In terms of representativeness, we did an analysis to look at the demographic characteristics of those people who took the survey, compared to the population,” Bruch said. “And, for the most part, all survey samples are representative of our population.”

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The survey questions were grouped around four “diversity, equity, and inclusion” goals:

To create and sustain an inclusive and equitable campus;

To recruit, retain, and advance a diverse community of faculty, staff, and students;

To integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into the core UI mission;

And to enhance accountability and the effectiveness of diversity efforts.

In a broad sense, about 70 percent of faculty, staff, undergraduate, and graduate students reported feeling somewhat or very satisfied with the UI environment, according to the data. But a breakdown of those findings revealed wide variation in the campus experience depending on race, sexual orientation, political or religious affiliation, and socio-economic status.

For example, the most common type of discrimination involved political orientation – reported by 35 percent of undergraduate students – followed by gender identity discrimination at 22 percent, and racial or ethnic identity at 17 percent.

More than 50 percent of conservative students reported experiencing obvious or subtle discrimination on the UI campus in the past 12 months based on their political opinions or beliefs, compared with 31 percent of their liberal counterparts, according to the data.

And although 87 percent of undergraduate respondents reported feeling the university provides an environment supporting “the free and open expression of ideas, opinions, and beliefs,” politically conservative students were less likely to agree – with 82 percent saying so, compared with 90 percent of liberal students.

Political divisions among faculty respondents aligned with the undergraduate population, as about half of conservative faculty and nearly 30 percent of conservative staff reported experiencing obvious or subtle discrimination based on their political beliefs or opinions over the past 12 months.

Nearly 50 percent of conservative faculty and staff said the overall climate for their conservative sector was somewhat or very hostile, according to the data. And a much smaller percentage of conservative faculty than liberal agreed the UI environment supports the free and open expression of ideas, opinions, and beliefs – with 54 percent saying so, compared with 82 percent, respectively.

Likewise, a higher percentage of liberal faculty and staff than conservative said UI efforts to increase the diversity of invited speakers, lectures, and performances are “positively influencing campus climate.”

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The findings come just a week after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a controversial “free speech bill” mandating, among other things, that Iowa’s public universities and colleges adopt free-speech policies; prohibit First Amendment restrictions pertaining to public assemblies, campus property, and visiting speakers; and allow student groups to choose leaders based on belief and ideology.

Faculty findings

Although political ideology was reported among the top reasons for discrimination among the faculty and staff respondents, the most common cause for discrimination was age – with 27 percent of staff respondents and 24 percent of faculty experiencing age discrimination. A close second for faculty respondents was gender discrimination, with 23 percent of faculty reporting such.

Breaking down that finding further, women are much more likely than men to report discrimination on the basis of gender – with 40 percent, compared to 5 percent.

And about 50 percent of faculty respondents who identify as underrepresented minorities – including those who identify as Hispanic, black, Native American, or Pacific Islander – reported racial or ethnic discrimination, as did 53 percent of staff identifying as minority.

The survey also asked faculty and staff about their overall satisfaction with the UI workplace, including whether they’ve seriously considered leaving campus. Although more than three-quarters – 76 percent – of faculty and staff said they were somewhat or very satisfied with their UI employment, and 79 percent said they would decide again to become a UI faculty or staff member, nearly 40 percent said they’ve seriously considered leaving the university in the past 12 months.

“That’s a number that really gets our attention, when thinking about retention,” Bruch said.

Among the group that considered leaving, 60 percent of staff and 47 percent of faculty identified departmental climate among the reasons, according to the findings. Another common reason was salary, with 58 percent of faculty and 56 percent of staff citing pay as a driving factor.

“What this really clearly shows is that departmental climate is one of the most prevalent reasons why people are considering leaving,” Bruch said.

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Results revealed stark disparities for underrepresented minority faculty and staff, with 60 percent of faculty in that group having seriously considered leaving and 43 percent of staffers doing so – much higher rates than reported among Asian and white faculty and staff.

Financial pressures

Another place in which students reported climate concerns was in their pocketbooks, according to the survey’s findings. More than 60 percent of the undergraduate respondents said they somewhat often, often, or very often cut down on personal or recreational spending in the past year due, with 53 percent reporting worries about debt and financial circumstances.

About 16 percent of respondents said they skipped or cut the size of meals due to money.

The group of undergraduates reporting the most concerns about debt were first-generation students, at 71 percent. In terms of race and ethnicity, underrepresented minorities reported financial worries at the highest rate of 60 percent.

To accommodate college expenses, a large majority of the undergraduate respondents – 88 percent – reported buying fewer or cheaper books, or reading books on reserve; 85 percent reported applying for financial aid; 47 reported taking more courses per term; and 46 percent reported increasing their work hours.

Student debt for undgraduates across Iowa’s public universities, along with broad access to those campuses, has become a hot topic in recent months – as the Board of Regents has unveiled a plan to increase tuition rates on the UI and Iowa State University campuses in light of cuts in state funding.

Under the board’s five-year tuition model, rates for UI and ISU resident undergraduates will increase at least 3 percent annually – with the possibility for higher hikes if lawmakers reject the board’s appropriation requests.

Next steps

Each of the UI climate survey goals comes with action steps for the immediate and long term.

Those include:

Developing tools to create welcoming and inclusive spaces – including an assessment of gender-neutral restrooms, accessibility features, images on walls, and building and room names, for example;

Implementing, publicizing, and evaluating a three-year “distinction through diversity” fund aimed at recruiting and retaining minority faculty and students;

Completing a 2019 climate survey of professional, post-doctoral, and post-graduate students – underway now;

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Requiring administrative units to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion goals and metrics into their strategic plans – while also establishing success metrics;

“The University of Iowa is steadfast in its commitment to create a community in which all of our faculty, staff, and students can build their lives in an environment that values the unique contributions of every individual,” said Melissa Shivers, vice president for student life and interim associate vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Improving the campus climate will require sustained, community-wide effort, and it’s critical to the future success of our university.”

Campus community members interested in talking further about the climate survey results can attend one of two listening sessions scheduled for later this month.

If you go:

The first is 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. April 24 in the Petersen Residence Hall multi-purpose room;

The second is 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. April 25 in the Iowa Memorial Union Iowa Theater, room 166.

• Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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