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Campus Community Survey

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As part of the Engaged Pluralism Initiative, Vassar has engaged external consultants Rankin & Associates to help us better understand our community. As a first step in this process, Rankin & Associates' facilitators conducted small-group conversations, called focus groups. In April-May 2018, all members of the Vassar community were invited to participate in a Campus Community Survey. This assessment phase is an essential part of the effort to understand where we are, as a community, and also develop methods for assessing ourselves independently in the future.

Focus Groups

On October 23rd, 2017, Rankin & Associates facilitated 21 focus group conversations with over 150 members of the Vassar community, including staff, students, faculty, and administrators. Community members volunteered by responding to a campus-wide invitation from President Bradley, as well as to invitations from peers to join focus groups. These small-group conversations provided us with information about how a range of students, faculty, and employees experience Vassar in terms of social difference, equity, and belonging. Rankin & Associates used an informed consent process approved by the Vassar Institutional Review Board, and data from the focus group meetings are and will remain completely confidential.

All-Campus, Online, Anonymous Survey

The Campus Community Survey, fielded in Spring 2018, serves as a quantitative baseline measure of campus climate. Building on this initial assessment will help us develop a survey instrument that allows us to track our progress over time. 

Campus Community Survey: Frequently Asked Questions

Campus Community Survey: Frequently Asked Questions

How is this survey different from other assessments that Vassar College has done?

  • We have so far not encountered a single survey that included all employees and students, so we believe that this is the most comprehensive survey that has been done in a long time.
  • It is not a reaction to a crisis.
  • It is action-oriented in its design—working groups will address areas of need as identified by the survey.
  • It is transparent—all community members will receive results at the same time.
  • New presidential leadership allows us to seize the moment with results.
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What is campus climate?

This Campus Community Survey is designed to measure what the consultants we are working with—Rankin and Associates—refer to as "campus climate." Climate is the collective atmosphere that either helps us succeed or holds us back. It's everything from policy to pedagogy to personal attitudes in the classroom, the residence hall, the dean's office, the laboratory, etc. The climate is often shaped through institutional efforts and patterned interactions. Dr. Susan Rankin of Rankin & Associates puts it this way: in institutions of higher education, climate is "the current attitudes, behaviors, standards and practices of employees and students of an institution.” We seek to create a positive climate because of the  outcomes it generates: academic success, a sense of self-worth and confidence, and overall well-being for members of the community.

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Why is a positive climate important?

Positive personal experiences with campus climate and positive perceptions of campus climate generally equate to successful outcomes that 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.

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Why did Vassar conduct a campus community survey?

The Campus Community Survey took place as part of the Engaged Pluralism Initiative (EPI), a multi-year, campus-wide program designed to bring all members of the campus community—staff, faculty, students, and administrators—together in dialogue about what it means to belong and thrive together. Partially funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the EPI consists of working groups that have taken on particular aspects of the larger goal of inclusion and belonging (see the EPI timeline for more information). One of the EPI working groups is dedicated to an assessment of the campus climate. Facilitating this survey was one part of that group’s mission.
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Who conducted the survey?

The Climate Assessment Committee, in conjunction with the EPI Climate Assessment Working Group (both comprised of Vassar students, faculty and staff), was charged with overseeing the Campus Commmunity Survey. After a review of potential vendors, the committee selected Rankin & Associates Consulting to conduct the survey. Rankin & Associates reports directly to the committee. 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 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. Rankin has conducted multi-location institutional climate studies at more than 190 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).
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How were the questions developed?

The consultant has administered climate assessments to more than 190 institutions across the nation and developed a repository of tested questions. To assist in contextualizing the survey for Vassar College, and to capitalize on the many assessment efforts already undertaken, a committee related to the Engaged Pluralism Initiative Climate Assessment Working Group was formed that consists of faculty, staff, and student representatives from various constituent groups at Vassar College. The committee is responsible for developing the survey questions. The team reviewed selected survey questions from the consultant’s tested collection and also included Vassar College-specific questions which were informed by focus group results.

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What will be done with data from the results?

Although the committee believes the survey process itself is informative, we have sought and received commitment from President Elizabeth Bradley, Dean of the Faculty Jon Chenette, and other senior leaders that data will be used to plan for an improved climate at Vassar. All stakeholders—faculty, staff and students—will be invited to participate in the development of post-survey action initiatives. Vassar and the Engaged Pluralism Initiative will receive data (without identification) and reports to inform the development of action steps.
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What was the response rate goal?

Target participation in the survey was 100%. Every response matters and is valuable in providing the most beneficial feedback and results.

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How was respondent confidentiality protected?

Confidentiality is vital to the success of campus climate research, particularly as sensitive and personal topics are discussed. While the survey cannot 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 will be shared.

Confidentiality in participating was maintained to the highest degree permitted by the technology used (e.g., IP addresses were 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 college will not report 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 college will combine the groups or take 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 as not to be attributed to any individual demographic characteristics. Identifiable information submitted in qualitative comments were redacted and the college will only receive 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 considered to be uncomfortable. Paper and pencil surveys were also available, to be sent directly to the consultant.

Information in the introductory section of the survey described the manner in which confidentiality was 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.

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Why was a non-Vassar College researcher selected for the project?

In reviewing efforts by other colleges and universities to conduct comprehensive climate studies, several best practices were identified. One was the need for external expertise in survey administration. 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 college community may feel particularly inhibited to respond honestly to a survey administered by their own institution for fear of retaliation.

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Why is this a population survey and not a sample survey?

Dr. Rankin recommends against 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 marginalized “voices” to be heard, this sampling technique is not used. In addition, randomized stratified sampling is not used because we do not have population data on most identities. For example, Vassar collects population data on gender and race/ethnicity, but not on disability status or sexual orientation. So, a sample approach could miss many groups.

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

Vassar College has 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 has been submitted to a secure server hosted by the consultant. The survey is run on a firewalled web server with forced 256-bit SSL security and is 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 will have 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 will be limited and each will have had required background checks.

The consultant has conducted more than 190 institutional surveys and maintains an aggregate merged database. The data from the Vassar College project will be 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 are returned to the consultant directly and kept in a locked file drawer in a locked office. The consultant destroys the paper and pencil responses after they are 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 will provide Vassar College with a data file at the completion of the project.

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What is the timeline?

This project includes five primary phases: the conducting of focus groups (fall 2017); survey development (spring-fall 2017), survey implementation to seek input from all faculty, staff, administrators, and students (spring 2018), reporting of results (fall 2018), development of strategic actions (fall 2018), and initial implementation of actions (2018-19).

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What will be included in the final summary reports?

The consultant will provide a final report that will include: 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 reports provide high-level summaries of the findings and will identify themes found in the data. Generalizations for populations are limited to those groups or subgroups with response rates of at least 30 percent. The committee will review draft reports and provide feedback to the consultant prior to public release.

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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 will see a long list of possible choices for many demographic questions. 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.”

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

The primary investigator from Vassar College for the IRB process is Candice Lowe Swift. An IRB application was submitted for the project. 

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