Next week will mark an important milestone in minority student groups' continued push toward a comprehensive assessment of campus climate at Penn.

Campus climate - which refers to individuals' levels of comfort at Penn in terms of their gender and gender identity, race, sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity - has been an important issue for minority student groups for at least the past 10 years.

And despite frustration at what some see as a delayed response from the University, climate-related survey data from 2006 will finally be released at the University Council meeting on April 30.

Now, after years of a perceived deadlock, the administration is ready to publicly discuss climate on campus.

Climate heats up

Campus climate has been on the agenda of Penn's Pluralism Committee, now called the Diversity and Equity Committee, for the past decade. The issue has been receiving more attention recently, following several incidents that took place on campus.

In 2003, a black associate faculty master was arrested and pepper-sprayed by police while attempting to deliver donated bicycles to the Quadrangle. The incident caused outcry among members of the minority communities at Penn, who cited bias-based racial profiling as the reason behind the arrest.

Discussions of the incident eventually led to the formation of the subcommittee on campus climate, which helped to bring a campus climate specialist from Penn State University, Sue Rankin, to advise the committee and the administration.

Rankin offered to administer a survey assessing student comfort at Penn, but the administration showed little interest, citing cost and survey fatigue as the reasons, according to LGBT Center director Bob Schoenberg, who has been an active supporter of campus climate issues at Penn since he began working here 25 years ago.

However, things looked brighter in 2006 when, as a member institution of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education - an organization that conducts surveys at its 31 member schools - Penn registered to take part in a senior-exit survey the group was offering, which included questions pertaining to campus climate.

But after participating in the survey, Penn did not publicly release the data, despite increased demands from minority student leaders who were reinvigorated by an incident in March 2007 in which a black student was arrested as he attempted to enter the Walnut Street entrance of Huntsman Hall after closing.

Minority leaders identified this incident once again as bias-based racial profiling and began to steer the conversation toward a concerted effort to institute a campus climate study.

But now, two years after the COFHE survey was first administered, students will finally be able to see that data.

Repeated delays

Penn's five minority coalitions - Lambda Alliance, United Minorities Council, Asian Pacific Students Council, Latino Coalition and UMOJA - have all supported the institution of a campus climate study, but they have been confronted with repeated delays.

The Provost's office has been promising these results since the University Council meeting in October 2007, but at every meeting since then, the results have been pushed back.

"I'm concerned it wasn't an accident," said College senior and former chairman of the Lambda Alliance Kevin Rurak.

Student leaders are frustrated with the frequent postponements and want the data to conduct an empirical assessment of students' attitudes toward diversity, said College junior, UMC chairwoman and DP columnist Lisa Zhu.

"We have no idea how effective our diversity-related programs are because we have no evidence of how attitudes change over time," she said.

"We don't have any ulterior motive in finding out the results from the data. We just want to find an objective way to measure attitudes on campus," said College junior and UMC vice chairman Derek Mazique.

According to student leaders, the COFHE results will hopefully act as a jumping-off point for future action.

"The end goal is that we want to find out how people feel and if there's something wrong, we know what it is and we can fix it," said College junior and UMC political chairman Lorenzo Williams. "If we find out nothing's wrong, we want to celebrate that and advertise it to perspective students and alumni."

One central survey

According to Penn administration, the campus climate issue has always been of importance, but only recently have groups on campus expressed a strong interest in having a sense of the University's performance on the issue.

But officials aren't ready to rush the process.

"We thought it would make sense to take a good, careful look at strong data and surveys that are already in place," said Associate Provost Andy Binns.

While the senior surveys and enrolled-students surveys that were conducted aren't entirely about climate, each has a large climate component in it, said Provost Ron Daniels.

"The virtue of participating in these COFHE surveys is that you have benchmarks against which you can evaluate your own performance to see whether you're doing better or worse than your peer group over time," Daniels said.

However, while developing a survey is important, administrators don't want to create a survey based solely on campus climate.

"We could always administer another survey. The problem is survey fatigue. We want to have one central survey that addresses all issues of a student's experience at Penn," Binns said.

In releasing this data to the Penn community, the administration hopes that people will recognize that climate has been addressed and the question going forth will concentrate on ways to make it better.

The fact still remains, however, that it took two years to release the 2006 data. A significant amount of time was spent analyzing the data - which was not returned until a year later - and preparing it, said Daniels.

"We feel very good about being at the leadership of our peer group" in analyzing campus climate, Daniels said.

A starting point

After the Provost presents the data to the Penn community on April 30, both the administration and student groups intend to begin conversations about ways to improve upon existing methods of measurement.

"There are large segments of the campus population that are untouched by COFHE," Schoenberg said. "There was nothing on the 2006 senior survey that had anything to do with gender identity or sexual orientation."

Student leaders of the five minority coalitions and members of the Diversity and Equity Committee were shown some of the data in advance of the upcoming UC meeting.

"I think that in seeing the results of the COFHE data, it reaffirms the need for a more comprehensive analysis of what undergraduates on campus are thinking," Mazique said.

Others aren't sure how helpful this data will be.

"The questions that were asked and the answers that were given don't even begin to scratch the surface," Rurak said. "They're too broad, and I don't necessarily think that we're closer to resolving anything."

While no one will comment on the exact nature of the data until after it is publicly released, Mazique said that many of the results will serve as good starting points for discussion.

But despite the long wait, students are glad to see some action.

"Even though we've been calling for the release of this data for a very long time, I do commend the Provost's office for opening up this data to members of [the five minority boards] and for having a conversation with us," Mazique added. "It shows that they're willing to extend an open arm to the undergraduate community."

Staff Writer Nandanie Khilall can be e-mailed nandanie@dailypennsylvanian.com.

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