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Students satisfied with climate of diversity at Austin Peay, says recently released report

2/25/2002
February 25, 2002

Results of the University's racial climate study were released late last week, and the findings surprised even administrators. Statistics show that student satisfaction with the “climate of diversity” was significantly higher at Austin Peay when compared to student satisfaction with diversity at other universities in Tennessee.

That conclusion was evident not only in rankings by students overall, but also in rankings by minority and African-American students. APSU minority and African-American students also were more likely to say they would enroll at the institution again than their peers at other universities in the state.

The report came as good news to the University's president, Dr. Sherry Hoppe, who initiated the study in response to concerns voiced by a group of students early in Spring 2001.

Following a meeting with students expressing concerns about the University's racial climate, the University contracted with Fisk University's Race Relations Institute to conduct a survey of the campus's racial climate.

While the Fisk survey data was viewed as useful, the information had one significant shortcoming: the responses were not broken down by race, and, in fact, no racial or demographic data had been requested of those surveyed.

“Because there was no demographic component to the survey, it was impossible for us to draw conclusions about the feelings of minority or African-American students as groups,” says Hoppe. “And we felt it was important to know whether or not the concerns they had were representative only of minorities or of the total University.”

A University committee appointed to the project decided to approach the problem from both statistical and anecdotal perspectives.

For statistical data, they turned to the state's Enrolled Student Survey, an instrument that measures student satisfaction levels at all nine public universities in Tennessee. The ESS data is particularly valuable for a study of racial climate, according to Dr. Houston Davis, assistant vice president for academic affairs. “It indicates not only if problems exist, but whether they're specific to certain institutions or more widespread.”

Among the questions directed to the 13,600 university students taking part in the 2001 survey (950 from APSU) were “How satisfied are you with the climate of diversity [at the university you attend]?”

Though minority students across the board were slightly less satisfied with the climate of diversity than Caucasian students were, they were more satisfied at Austin Peay than at other institutions in the state.

To supplement survey data with more qualitative information, the committee conducted several focus groups. “Focus groups supplement numerical data by providing insights into the rationale behind certain attitudes and behaviors,” says Davis. “People who participate in focus groups often offer information that might not come out in conventional surveys.”

Davis, along with Eleanor Graves, director of multiethnic services, served as moderators for the groups.

Among the questions participants were asked was “What are your perceptions and observations of the interaction between different racial groups [on campus]?” Their responses were then grouped by category. Though there were no complaints of open discrimination or hostility between racial groups, 12 students in the focus groups mentioned that voluntary segregation and cliquishness among racial and social groups was a problem.

One other problem was revealed. In both focus groups and the ESS survey, Austin Peay students of all races indicated they were less than satisfied with the social life on campus. Students in focus groups, in particular, expressed frustration about the number of activities available.

Hoppe says she is both aware of and sensitive to the problem. “We have fewer than a thousand students living on campus, so it's hard to reach a critical mass of students to take part in activities. At the same time, we have a large group of nontraditional students, who have work and family responsibilities that prevent them from taking part in University events.”

Though Hoppe said the racial climate project was too recently concluded for administrators to have formed an action plan, they will do so. “We'll continue working toward making the University a model of racial equity.”

As for the University's “social culture,” Hoppe said she believes the opening of the new student center in March will go a long way toward creating a stronger sense of campus life. New dorm facilities, slated for completion by Fall 2003, should expand the University's population of students living on campus.

“Overall, this research leads to a better understanding of areas that need to be addressed,” adds Davis. “Though the racial climate was not viewed as poor by the majority of African-American students, as originally alleged, there are still gaps in satisfaction levels, especially in social and cultural aspects.

“APSU minority students do report higher levels of satisfaction than their peers in Tennessee, but this is not a reason for the University to rest on its laurels. Every institution in the state should be concerned with improving the status quo.”

To view the report in its entirety go to www.apsu.edu/ccn/pdf/climate.pdf