Carnegie Mellon University

CMU Voices 2018: What we learned

Background on survey and analysis

The 2018 CMU VOICES study, conducted by the Office of Institutional Research and Analysis, was designed to help university leadership, including the President’s Task Force on Campus Climate, understand students’ experiences related to cultural diversity and inclusion of the campus environment, and to inform educational initiatives and plans for creating a campus environment that engages and supports students across all backgrounds and experiences.

CMU VOICES (administered between November 2018 and January 2019) expanded upon CMU’s previous DASH (Discriminatory and Sexual Harassment) Study by incorporating additional campus climate and engagement indicators researched and developed by the National Institute for Transformation and Equity (NITE) at Indiana University. Our goal in expanding from DaSH to VOICES was to be able to leverage results toward specific educational initiatives and plan to create a campus environment that engages and supports students across all backgrounds and experiences.

The survey items are based on the Culturally Engaging Campus Environments (CECE) Model, developed by the National Institute for Transformation and Equity (NITE). NITE developed the model to move beyond generating data about problems and shift toward what campuses must do to cultivate more equitable and inclusive institutions.

The CECE model points to dimensions that support student success and helps to identify specific areas for action toward increasing student access to culturally engaging campus.

Analysis was organized by nine indicators across three themes:

  1. Cultural Responsiveness,
  2. Sense of Belonging, and
  3. Cultural Relevance

To learn more about the indicators, download the report.

It is important to note: There was a low response rate to VOICES despite the extended timeframe of data collection.  The low response rate (22.9% overall) does not support quantitative analysis of the data; however, the data were rich enough to be analyzed for themes and actionable patterns across the populations. If these data had been gathered using interviews or focus groups, what follows could be considered a phenomenological approach. In other words, the text of students’ survey responses were used to describe their experiences of our climate in a non-numeric manner.

Cultural Responsiveness

Participants generally agree with items characterizing CMU as a place with opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with faculty and staff, to receive proactive and holistic support for well-being, and, on the whole, as being interested in students’ success. However, it is important to note:

  • Different from their peers, Hispanic undergraduate women were neutral across most responsiveness indicators; likewise, Black women were neutral in one indicator.
  • Masters student responses differ greatly from undergraduate and doctoral students. Masters students across cultural identities were neutral on the presence of proactive philosophies (communication, checking-in, connecting). Additionally, there were differences along gender lines and with Hispanic students related to the presence of holistic support (relationships with trusted support people and consideration of the whole self in advising). 
  • There was more uniform agreement across doctoral student responses though noteworthy reported differences for women, transgender, and non-binary students.

Sense of Belonging

In addition to culturally responsive and culturally relevant domains, the study examined students’ connection or belonging to CMU.

Participant response patterns for belonging tend to follow the patterns in the culturally relevant domain, though not always. 

In other words, when culturally responsive (or care and concern) indicators were more positive, belonging indicators did not always follow suit; when culturally relevant indicators were less positive, belonging often appeared more neutral.

Cultural Relevance

Participant responses among culturally relevant dimensions are far more varied. These items examined the degree to which students believe their culture is known, considered, and valued in how the campus operates and educates. For example:

  • Women overall did not view CMU’s environment to be as relevant
    (validating, connected, and representative) as men across race and ethnic identities.
  • Hispanic women’s experiences, both undergraduate and graduate, were in stark contrast to White and Asian men and women. Across the Hispanic experience, students did not agree that CMU operates and educates in ways that validate their backgrounds and experiences.
  • Black students did not agree, on almost all indictors, that the environment on campus was culturally relevant. Black women masters’ students reported a strong pattern of disagreement with characterizing CMU as relevant to or validating their experiences.
  • LGBQ, Transgender, and Non-binary identifying students were largely neutral on their views about CMU as culturally relevant.

Key Insights

Positive impacts on student success require our environment to be both culturally responsive and culturally relevant.

  • Cultural relevance dimensions help us see the impact of historical legacies and current practices of exclusion in the academic disciplines generally and at CMU. 
  • Cultural relevance includes but goes beyond numbers and representation, expecting cultural understanding and validation throughout the environment.
  • Sense of belonging results are consistent with research in the field.
  • Alienation and even demeaning peer and faculty interactions, particularly in academic settings,  damage the transformational potential of CMU’s learning environment for all students.

We have gathered a lot of information and now we must act. It is time to focus on the cultural relevance of our campus environments. 

Representation matters. 
  • ACTION: The Provost has directed the Deans to create action plans that offer resources, leadership, and accountability for increases in recruitment, yield, and retention across student, staff, and faculty populations. 
All members of the campus community need opportunities to continuously reflect on own identities and informing sense of self in relationship to others. 
  • ACTION: The Center for Student Diversity has proved to be a valuable resource. Through the Center’s work, we have learned that students are seeking greater engagement with faculty and fellow students on these issues and we are committed to making the strategic investments needed to expand the impact of the Center’s work. To that end, the Center is currently revising the curriculum of key educational programs and will be increasing the student leadership capacity for social change through the creation of a Peer Advocates program. 
The curriculum must reflect the cultural diversity of the world and our campus. Pedagogical practices must reflect the diversity of student experiences, learning styles, and backgrounds. 
  • ACTION: The Provost Inclusive Teaching Fellows program will launch this spring that expands on the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation’s efforts to advance inclusive teaching practices among our faculty and instructional staff.  
Ensure that students are finding authentic validation and belonging in and out of the classroom. 
  • ACTION: The Core Competency Initiative is identifying key skills for all CMU students that focus on inclusion and intercultural competencies to be taught across the curriculum and co-curriculum. 
  • ACTION: The Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion will extend its support for graduate students to include faculty mentoring and development of opportunities for mentorship relationships with undergraduate students. 
  • ACTION: This fall, the Tartan Scholars program began at CMU to meet the unique needs of our incoming first-year students who are academically high-achieving and come from limited-resource backgrounds. The Tartan Scholars program will be expanded to include culturally-relevant academic support, an increased first year student cohort size for fall 2020, and continuous support available to eligible  students throughout their time at CMU.