What is university climate?

Dr. Susan Rankin of Rankin & Associates Consulting, which is serving as the outside consultant for Syracuse University’s climate survey, defines university climate as “the current attitudes, behaviors, standards and practices of employees and students of an institution.” The climate is often shaped through personal experiences, perceptions and institutional efforts.

Why is a positive climate important?

Dr. Rankin’s research maintains that positive personal experiences with university climate and positive perceptions of university climate generally equate to successful outcomes. Examples of successful outcomes include positive educational experiences and healthy identity development for students, productivity and sense of value for faculty and staff, and overall well-being for all.

Why did Syracuse University conduct a climate survey?

The idea to conduct a university climate survey originated from interested students, faculty and staff who believed data from such a survey might be useful in planning for the future and improving the climate at the University.

Who conducted the survey?

The Climate Assessment Planning Committee (CAPC)—which includes a cross-section of students, faculty and staff—is charged with conducting Syracuse’s climate survey. After a review of potential vendors, the committee selected Rankin & Associates Consulting to conduct the survey. Rankin & Associates reports directly to the committee. Although the CAPC will regularly update the University about its progress, the committee—in consultation with Rankin & Associates—is solely responsible for the development, implementation and interpretation of the survey and its results.

Dr. Susan Rankin (Rankin & Associates Consulting) is the consultant working directly with the CAPC on this project. Dr. Rankin is an emeritus faculty member of Education Policy Studies and College Student Affairs at The Pennsylvania State University and a senior research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education. She has extensive experience in institutional climate assessment and institutional climate transformation based on data-driven action and strategic planning. Dr. Rankin has conducted multi-location institutional climate studies at more than 130 institutions across the country. She developed and utilizes the Transformational Tapestry model as a research design for campus climate studies. The model is a “comprehensive, five-phase strategic model of assessment, planning and intervention. The model is designed to assist campus communities in conducting inclusive assessments of their institutional climate to better understand the challenges facing their respective communities.” (Rankin & Reason, 2008).

Why was a non-Syracuse researcher selected for the project?

In reviewing efforts by other universities to conduct comprehensive climate studies, several best practices were identified. One was the need for external expertise in survey administration. The administration of a survey relating to a very sensitive subject like campus climate is likely to yield higher response rates and provide more credible findings if led by an independent, outside agency. Members of a university community may feel particularly inhibited to respond honestly to a survey administered by their own institution for fear of retaliation.

How were the questions developed?

The consultant has administered climate assessments to more than 130 institutions across the nation and developed a repository of tested questions. To assist in contextualizing the survey for Syracuse, and to capitalize on the many assessment efforts already undertaken, the CAPC was formed and consists of faculty, staff and student representatives from various constituent groups at the University. The committee was responsible for developing the survey questions. The team reviewed selected survey questions from the consultant’s tested collection and also included Syracuse-specific questions that were informed by the focus group results.

Why do some demographic questions contain a very large number of response options?

It is important in campus climate research for survey participants to “see” themselves in response choices to prevent “othering” an individual or an individual’s characteristics. Some researchers maintain that assigning someone to the status of “other” is a form of marginalization and should be minimized, particularly in campus climate research, which has an intended purpose of inclusiveness. Along these lines, survey respondents saw a long list of possible choices for many demographic questions. However, it is reasonably impossible to include every possible choice to every question, but the goal is to reduce the number of respondents who must choose “other.”

What is the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process for this study?

The primary investigator from the University for the IRB process is Dr. Elizabeth Barlow, SU assistant vice president for institutional research and assessment. An IRB application was submitted and approved.

What will be done with data from the results?

Although the committee believes the survey process itself is informative, it has sought and received commitment from Chancellor Syverud and senior leaders that data will be used to plan for an improved climate at Syracuse University. All stakeholders—faculty, staff and students—will be invited to participate in the development of post-survey action initiatives.

How is a respondent’s confidentiality protected?

Confidentiality is vital to the success of campus climate research, particularly as sensitive and personal topics are discussed. While the survey could not guarantee complete confidentiality because of the nature of multiple demographic questions, the consultant took multiple precautionary measures to enhance individual confidentiality and the de-identification of data. No data already protected through regulation or policy (e.g., Social Security number, campus identification number, medical information) was obtained through the survey. In the event of any publication or presentation resulting from the assessment, no personally identifiable information has been shared.

Confidentiality in participating was maintained to the highest degree permitted by the technology used (e.g., IP addresses will be stripped when the survey is submitted). No guarantees can be made regarding the interception of data sent via the Internet by any third parties; however, to avoid interception of data, the survey was run on a firewalled web server with forced 256-bit SSL security. In addition, the consultant and the University have not reported any group data for groups of fewer than five individuals, because those “small cell sizes” may be small enough to compromise confidentiality. Instead, the consultant and the University have combined the groups or taken other measures to eliminate any potential for demographic information to be identifiable. Additionally, any comments submitted in response to the survey were separated at the time of submission to the consultant so they were not attributed to any individual demographic characteristics. Identifiable information submitted in qualitative comments were redacted, and the University only received these redacted comments.

Participation in the survey was completely voluntary, and participants did not have to answer any question—except the first positioning question (staff, faculty)—and could skip any other questions they considered to be uncomfortable. Paper and pencil surveys were also available and were sent directly to the consultant.

Information in the introductory section of the survey described the manner in which confidentiality is guaranteed, and additional communication to participants provided expanded information on the nature of confidentiality, possible threats to confidentiality, and procedures developed to ensure de-identification of data.

What is included in the final summary report?

The consultant has provided a final report that includes: an executive summary; a report narrative of the findings based on cross-tabulations selected by the consultant; frequencies, percentages, means and standard deviations of quantitative data; and content analysis of the textual data. The report provides high-level summaries of the findings and identifies themes found in the data. Generalizations for populations are limited to those groups or subgroups with response rates of at least 30%. The committee reviewed draft reports and provided feedback to the consultant prior to public release.

What protections are in place for storage of sensitive data, including for future secondary use?

The University worked with the consultant to develop a research data security description and protocol, which includes specific information on data encryption, the handling of personally identifiable information, physical security and a protocol for handling unlikely breaches of data security. The data from online participants was submitted to a secure server hosted by the consultant. The survey was run on a firewalled web server with forced 256-bit SSL security and was stored on a SQL database that can only be accessed locally. The server itself may only be accessed using encrypted SSH connections originating from the local network. Rankin & Associates Consulting project coordinator Dr. Susan Rankin had access to the raw data along with several Rankin & Associates data analysts. All Rankin & Associates analysts have CITI (Human Subjects) training and approval and have worked on similar projects for other institutions. The web server runs with the SE-Linux security extensions (that were developed by the NSA). The server is also in RAID to highly reduce the chance of any data loss due to hardware failure. The server performs a nightly security audit from data acquired via the system logs and notifies the administrators. The number of system administrators is limited and each has had required background checks.

The consultant has conducted more than 130 institutional surveys and maintains an aggregate merged database. The data from the Syracuse project was merged with all other existing climate data stored indefinitely on the consultant’s secure server. No institutional identifiers are included in the full merged data set held by the consultant. The raw unit-level data with institutional identifiers is kept on the server for six months and then destroyed. The paper and pencil surveys were returned to the consultant directly and kept in a locked file drawer in a locked office. The consultant destroyed the paper and pencil responses after they were merged with the online data. The consultant will notify the committee chairs of any breach or suspected breach of data security of the consultant’s server.

The consultant is providing Syracuse with a data file at the completion of the project.

Why a population survey and not a sample survey?

The survey was administered to all faculty, staff and students at the University. Climate exists in micro-climates, so creating opportunities to maximize participation is important as well as maximizing opportunities to reach minority populations. Along these lines, the consultant recommended not using random sampling as we may “miss” particular populations where numbers are very small (e.g., Native American faculty). Since one goal of the project is inclusiveness and allowing invisible “voices” to be heard, this sampling technique was not used. In addition, randomized stratified sampling was not used because we do not have population data on most identities. For example, Syracuse collects population data on gender and race/ethnicity, but not on disability status or sexual orientation. So a sample approach could miss many groups.

What is the timeline?

This initiative includes several primary phases. The first involved the conducting of focus groups (fall 2015); survey development (fall 2015); survey implementation that sought input from all students, faculty and staff (spring 2016); reporting of results (fall 2016); development of strategic actions (fall 2016); and initial implementation of actions (2016-17).


Your questions and comments are very important as we move through this process. Please share by contacting Libby Barlow at 443-5966 or eabarlow@syr.edu.