How are we doing? Are our faculty happy? Our students? Are we offering the right courses, heading in the right direction, making good decisions? Are there discrepancies in satisfaction or success related to gender, race/ethnicity, or other social identity characteristics? Do people in this department feel invested in being here, as if their presence makes a difference? Would they recommend our department to others?
Effective climate surveys can be the foundation for a more nuanced, participatory, and comprehensive understanding of your department. Bringing into the conversation things which have been ignored, poorly understood, or denied makes it more possible for departments to productively discuss the goals and challenges of the department as a whole. They can clarify rumors, address differences between departmental factions, reveal systemic difficulties caused by unclear policies and procedures, resolve long-standing frustrations, and identify areas where the department is exemplary. To achieve these results, take care with every step of the process.
However, sometimes climate surveys backfire – especially when a department is unprepared for the process of interpretation or the question of how to take action based on the results. This can especially be true when survey results are (or appear) unclear, contradictory, or counter-intuitive; sometimes they do not seem to answer the “real” question.
The key with any climate survey is the spirit and quality of inquiry that infuses every step of the process.
Keep in mind the following key points when considering conducting a climate survey in your department.
Before considering survey results, consider the goals and standards of the department. What is an acceptable level of negative experiences? What factors signal the kind of climate you desire to have? Having these discussions in advance of a climate survey helps avoid dead-end discussions later such as “10% isn’t so bad” (when referencing a zero tolerance behavior) or “we’re not as bad as that other department!”
As with any research, a quick glance at survey results will give you a limited, and sometimes misleading, view of the data
Departmental climate is created through a complex interplay of factors; survey questions can only scratch the surface. An accurate understanding of departmental dynamics requires more than a cursory glance at the results. The useful questions and meaningful discussion that surveys make possible must begin with a thorough data analysis.
Climate data can illuminate where patterns (or don’t exist), reveal tensions and unintended outcomes, identify areas of success, and suggest refinements that can be too complex to see (or for all to see equally) amidst the day-to-day interactions of the department. But no survey will simply deliver these insights – on a silver platter or otherwise. Survey data becomes useful when it stimulates individual and institutional reflection, conversation, further questions, and ideas about how to initiate change.
As with any research, it is simply not possible to gather all the relevant data with a survey. Questions must be well-defined and limited, due to constraints including time, money, and relevance. It is seldom useful to dismiss a survey for what it can’t tell you; rather, utilize discussion of what it can tell you to identify what’s missing – then pursue those questions through other mechanisms.