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Professors develop survey tool to gauge university attitudes on diversity

Thu, 01/09/2014

LAWRENCE — Diversity is a hot topic on college campuses as higher learning institutions work to ensure they have a strong mix of faculty and students from a variety of cultural, ethnic and national backgrounds as well as other demographic categories. Yet there is no uniform way for colleges and universities to gauge how their campus views their culture of diversity.

Four University of Kansas professors have developed an instrument to assess not only faculty attitudes about diversity but also how these attitudes relate to their day-to-day social interactions, the varied norms and expectations of their different disciplinary fields, and ultimately how they carry out their research, teaching and service.

Jennifer Ng, associate professor, and Lisa Wolf-Wendel, professor of educational leadership and policy studies; and Bruce Frey, associate professor, and William Skorupski, associate professor of psychology and research in education, developed the ACES survey instrument. Their article on the tool’s development and testing has been published in the journal Research & Practice in Assessment.

The tool’s title, ACES, refers to four survey areas: attitude toward diversity; career activities related to diversity; environment of diversity and social interaction with diverse groups. It is not uncommon for colleges and universities to assess diversity on their campuses, but they often start from scratch, forming task forces or groups to ask questions about diversity without a model in place.

“I think we were able to come up with a concise, sound tool that institutions can use to measure faculty perceptions of diversity,” Wolf-Wendel said. “Certainly our goal would be to get other institutions to try the instrument and find it useful.”

In the testing of ACES, the researchers focused on gender, race and ethnicity and national origin as their terms of diversity. They acknowledge sexual orientation, religious diversity, disability and other categories could be topics of concern in diversity and that they could be added to future versions of the instrument. The survey containing 100 items in the ACES categories was sent to all tenure-track, full-time faculty members at a large Midwestern research university. Respondents were 38 percent full professors, 35 percent associate professors and 26 percent assistant professors. Women represented 47 percent of respondents, international faculty 14 percent, and 17 percent were racial/ethnic minorities.

Participants were asked to rate on a scale of 1-5 whether they strongly disagreed to strongly agreed with statements about diversity as it related to their campus, employment, teaching, research and other areas. The responses yielded several significant findings, the researchers wrote. Those with positive attitudes toward diversity goals tended to be female, not tenured and at their institution for less than 15 years. Those who believed their teaching or research reflected issues of diversity were more likely to be female, new to their institution and working in the humanities. Respondents who believed their institution promoted diversity were more likely to be males, white, tenured faculty and staff and those who had been in higher education longer overall. Those who said they interact with diverse populations as part of their work were most likely to be in the sciences and least likely to be in a professional school.

The findings also showed that faculty who reported their work deals with issues of diversity gave a lower score to their own institution’s climate. That can possibly be the result of people who work in sciences or other fields that don’t address the topic directly not thinking about it as often.

“The more people do research in these areas, the less supportive they think the climate is,” Wolf-Wendel said. “But it’s not going to be on my radar screen to fix something if I don’t know it exists or don’t think about it in my day-to-day work.”

The four authors each contributed expertise to the development of ACES. Ng has conducted research in multicultural issues related to race, class and equity concerns in education. Skorupski and Frey, experts in statistics, research design, measurement and evaluation, performed applied psychometric research for the project. Wolf-Wendel has authored numerous books and journal articles on equity in higher education.

Findings such as those in the initial use of ACES, whether they are reflected from one institution to the next, are important, the authors said, because they can help administration identify issues related to diversity and address them. Considering the demographics of faculty is important as well, as the initial findings show faculty members are not “one monolithic group” and that their background is related to their perceptions of diversity. The researchers have begun making the ACES instrument available to institutions that want to use it, only asking that they share data so they can continue to monitor its validity.

“Understanding how faculty view diversity is a very important piece of the higher education puzzle,” Wolf-Wendel said. “How they view the climate at their institution matters because of the research they do and curricular decisions they make, not to mention the recruitment an institution does.”



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