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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

*Not* an exposé: Publishing a department-level climate survey as a tool for action

Screenshot of a figure depicting how faculty, graduate students, and staff felt about belonging, thriving, and growth (displayed as a range from disagree to strongly agree) and satisfaction with department climate (displayed on range from very unsatisfied to very satisfied). Majority of results were generally positive, though graduate students had overall more negative responses and staff had the most negative responses re sense of belonging, thriving, and growth. Follow links in the post for access to the PDF of the whole paper.
Figure 3 from our paper depicts how the three employee categories we surveyed felt about sense of belonging and satisfaction in the department

A couple of years ago, I led a team in our department to develop and conduct a climate survey. As we detail in a paper we published (recently-ish) about that effort, the idea of doing a survey at the department level emerged from a lot of discussion and group learning initiated in our department in 2020.

As we converged on the value of doing a department-level climate survey, we assumed there would be a lot of resources (especially considering all the campus climate surveys that are conducted). Instead, we were surprised to find there were zero published climate surveys that addressed department-level climate. I was especially surprised, because I consider a department to be the unit within a university where substantial change can happen most readily.

By that, I mean, the department is the unit of cohesion and direct affiliation -- it is what people "belong" to. That is, a department is where faculty are employed, teach and do research and service (or should!). It's where students study and get their degrees. (In our case, our staff are technically not under our purview; they are managed and hired at the college level. But, we still consider them part of our department, because they work with us to make everything we do in the department possible and successful.) Because the department is thus the unit to which people "belong," it is important to understand what that feels like for them.

And, as I noted above, departments are usually populated at a "goldilocks" scale: by enough people to have momentum and a wider range of ideas, but not so big that decision-making and collective action are intractable. (At least, this goldilocks scale is true for our department.) Given that, it was surprising that there were no published climate surveys for our scale of organization [1]. That led us to a parallel commitment: (1) do the department climate survey, and (2) publish it so that the next department that wants to do this work won't have to start from scratch.

Key takeaways (from the paper)

  • 82% of people we asked to take the survey (all current faculty, grad students, and staff at the time of the survey) actually did. Along with a balanced distribution of people responding from each employment category, that proved a reliable response rate for extrapolating to the department as a whole.

  • The survey was organized into five topical areas: (1) mental health and well-being; (2) importance of DEIJ; (3) sense of belonging; (4) safety; (5) work-life balance. We posed a core set of questions to everyone, and then a subset of questions calibrated to matters relevant to each, individual employee category.

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