Climate Research: Diversity at TC | Teachers College Columbia University

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Climate Research: Diversity at TC

Faculty members Robert Carter and Celia Oyler are conducting a three-year, mixed methods study of the College's diversity climate, interviewing more than 200 TC community members, mapping TC's ethnic, racial and gender demographics, reviewing past reports and other documents about diversity, and inventorying the visual "iconography" on campus.

Teachers College has mounted many efforts over the past decade to improve the climate for diversity: It created the Office for Community and Diversity in 2000; and it established the Vice President's position to lead that office; it sponsored training sessions on microaggressions and harassment.

While faculty members Robert T. Carter and Celia Oyler applaud these and other initiatives, they believe two key elements have been missing. First, these efforts have not fully sounded out the community itself, tending to involve representatives of different constituencies but not always capturing a range of voices from within each of those groups. Second, they have not tapped the abundant research capabilities at the institution--research that can elevate the conversation beyond perception and into the realm of objective fact.

With those concerns in mind, Carter, Professor of Psychology and Education, and Oyler, Associate Professor of Education, are conducting a three-year, mixed methods study of TC's diversity climate. They are interviewing more than 200 TC community members, including trustees, senior staff, professional and union staff, faculty (including adjuncts, instructors and lecturers) and students. At the same time they are mapping the demographics of each of these groups, quantifying the numbers and percentages of whites, African Americans, Latino/as, males, females and others within each of those categories. They also are conducting reviews both of past reports and other documents about diversity at TC, and of the visual "iconography" on campus: signs, posters, statues and other imagery that convey non-verbal or encoded messages related to diversity. 

Over the past several months, Carter and Oyler have been presenting their findings on an ongoing basis to faculty (including adjuncts and instructors), professional and union staff, students and trustees, and receiving extensive feedback. 

"The theoretical and conceptual approach we're taking is unique in several ways," says Carter. "First, we're working in a transformative way, sharing what we're learning as we go along and using both the information and the feedback we get to inform other phases of the project. But also, research on diversity climate is typically done more narrowly, in terms of the diversity of the faculty or the student body. We take the position that diversity issues for the faculty and students aren't the same, nor are they the same as those for people in other areas. In addition, it's one thing to deal in perceptions--to say, we think we know what the climate looks like--and another to truly map out that climate with graphs and charts. Because when you do that mapping, and you share it around, then everyone is operating from the same base of information." 

The goal, Carter and Oyler say, is not to compare TC to other institutions, but instead to focus on the institution itself and a more widely shared, positive experience around diversity for people at TC. 

To date, the two faculty members have completed a preliminary draft of the demographic mapping. While it is too early to share the hard numbers, certain basic trends are clear. 

"Overall, the majority of executive staff members and tenured faculty are white, though there are larger numbers of minorities at the assistant professor level, and overall the majority of union staff members are black and Hispanic," Carter says. "That's troubling when you consider both the hiring pool of qualified minority doctorates that's out there, and also when you compare it to the degree to which gender parity has improved. I don't think that other institutions are necessarily doing a better job. Our society is able to discuss other kinds of differences among people, but the conversation about race seems to continue to be difficult."

Carter says he is optimistic about the prospects for change, given the commitment that the College is making to support this project and other current initiatives around diversity.
"For me, the investment in this inquiry is significant, because it breaks the pattern of the past," Carter maintains. "It's really charting a new direction. The critical question is, what gets done with what we find, because it has no value if it's not used. Members of the community have to insist that it gets used, and leaders have to use it. The leaders have indicated a willingness to do that by the investment they've made in this effort, and in particular, by their commitment to providing everyone with the same information so that we can all be on the same page."

The Carter/Oyler study is part of a broader diversity effort that involves a task force comprising faculty and senior administrators. Inside will report on the work of the task force in subsequent issues.

Published Wednesday, Sep. 15, 2010