In the course of studying the group dynamics of 127 different institutions since 2001, Dr. Susan Rankin has asked difficult questions and encouraged honest answers.
But Rankin’s search to identify issues that prevent college campuses from achieving the ideal she describes — “communities of scholars” — hasn’t caused her to become jaded about human nature. She believes people are good, and hasn’t seen many examples over the years of people who intentionally want to do something harmful to others.
“But unintentional is as impactful as intentional,” Rankin says. “And so, how do we talk about those things in ways that people understand that the things that you’re doing might be hindering someone’s success?”
Rankin, a nationally recognized expert in institutional climate who has advised the U.S. Department of Justice on Title IX, is serving as a consultant to Marquette’s newly launched campus climate study.
The study will take a close look at organizational and intergroup dynamics at Marquette and identify how they might be improved – especially in regard to diversity and inclusiveness. Rankin, however, is hesitant to use the word “diversity”; her goal is to make sure everybody on campus is in position to be successful, not just a particular group or groups.
“The climate is influenced by everybody in the institution, not just those who have particular demographic characteristics,” Rankin says.
Through the study, Rankin expects to uncover some situations that are unique to Marquette and others that are common across academic institutions. She says the Jesuit mission gives Marquette a strong foundation for success.
“Your mission is social justice,” Rankin says. “And so that makes it easier – because we’re not doing anything that you say you don’t want to do.”
The study started with a series of 15 focus groups, conducted Oct. 6 by members of Rankin’s staff. Anonymity is guaranteed; even the facilitators conducting the focus groups didn’t know the names of the people they were talking to.
“We just ask you to share your experiences,” Rankin says. “What are the things that have been done here that have helped you succeed at Marquette, either as faculty, staff or a student? We ask what are the challenges that you might find, based upon who you are, in that same Marquette experience? And then what can we do to make it better? Those three are the main questions, and often times people go off on different roads and we go there with them.”
Feedback from focus groups will shape an extensive online survey that will be sent to all faculty, staff and students in Spring 2015 – once again, guaranteeing anonymity to all respondents.
Rankin will analyze results of the survey, which will be reviewed by members of Marquette’s Climate Study Working Group — a committee chaired by Dr. William Welburn, associate provost for diversity and inclusion, with co-chair Dr. Cheryl Maranto, chair and associate professor in the Department of Management — and shared with the Marquette community in Fall 2015.
It doesn’t end there. Based on Rankin’s findings, the committee will come up with significant steps to improve the climate at Marquette and they’ll be put into place quickly.
“I’ve been in higher education a long time,” Rankin says. “We collect a lot of data, and it goes on a shelf. We collect the data, have a nice committee, and then the plan goes next to the data on the shelf. So that’s not going to happen in this project.”
So what might those improvements look like? One of Rankin’s favorite success stories turned out to be fairly simple.
At one of the institutions she studied, there was noticeably low morale among one particular group of employees. The institution’s president asked Rankin to meet with the group – but she found them unwilling to talk, afraid that complaining might put them in danger of losing their jobs.
After Rankin assured them their comments would remain anonymous, one woman finally spoke up. She explained that that each of them used to work with a specific groups of students until a new supervisor came in and started rotating employees to save money.
Says Rankin: “She goes, ‘I lost my community. I’m just a worker here now.’”
The president decided to go back to the old system.
“Once they did that, the staff were impressed with the president’s decision, ‘Wow, they really do care,’” Rankin says. “Which changed the morale – not only of that staff, but the rest of the staff. What influences one in a negative way influences the whole community. Same thing with a positive change.”
For more information, visit Marquette’s Campus Climate Study website.
By Chris Jenkins