You are here: Home / Framework Review and Planning Updates / Archive / Challenge Two

Challenge Two


A Framework to Foster Diversity at Penn State: 1998–2003


Goal: Institute systematic climate improvement initiatives and assessment processes at all levels and locations

Understanding and valuing diversity is only a first step in the process of institutional transformation. These understandings must translate into activities undertaken by all members of the University community that create an inclusive and welcoming climate for students, faculty, and staff. This process is multifaceted, involving interactions both in and outside of the classroom, within work units, and in the residence halls. A welcoming and inclusive climate is grounded in respect for others, nurtured by dialogue between those of differing perspectives, and is evidenced by a pattern of civil interaction among community members. This vision of a wholesome climate is clearly consistent with the "customer service orientation" that is an integral part of Continuous Quality Improvement initiatives. It is critical that the diversity of "customers" be understood, respected, and reflected in day-to-day interactions.

The creation of a welcoming and inclusive climate is increasingly difficult. One major barrier is the general concern about the workplace climate, which is largely unrelated to diversity initiatives. Evidence of such concern was revealed in the responses to the recent Faculty/Staff Survey. In those areas undergoing major reorganization employees are sometimes anxious about issues like job stability and changing job performance expectations. Some of the occupations that are perceived to be tenuous have high proportions of female representation. As a consequence of such demographic patterns, initiatives that reassure employees that they and their work are valued simultaneously enhance the climate for diversity. The Staff Assistants Convocation for clerical staff working at locations other than University Park held in fall 1996 is an example of the type of initiative that can address employees’ anxieties while also contributing to the enhancement of the climate for diversity. Two hundred fifty of the 450 staff assistants employed at non-University Park locations attended this inaugural convocation. The 1997 convocation involved 220 participants. There is a need to address issues affecting staff assistants at University Park in a similar proactive manner, making use of the Staff Focus Group.

A second barrier to the creation of a welcoming environment is that a single highly-visible act of intolerance or hate violence can undo years of efforts to create a sense of community. In such situations, one of the best measures of the quality of the climate is the willingness of community members to sanction collectively the negative behavior. It is absolutely imperative that the University community speak with a united voice in the condemnation of acts of hatred and intolerance. The "Take a Stand" rally, held in fall 1995, is an example of the power of voices united in support of a diverse Penn State. This rally was organized by student organizations working together, supported by faculty and staff, and attended by over a thousand members of the University community. Such grass-roots responses to specific crises must be built upon institutional credibility that has been previously established through regular reiteration of the University’s commitment to an inclusive and multicultural community. These articulations must come from a variety of responsible persons at all levels and in all venues, from the halls of Old Main to the first words at new student orientation. Regular reinforcement of the University’s objectives is especially critical in residence hall settings, where the potential for acts of intolerance is especially high.

From the preceding frame of reference, the creation of the Campus Environment Team (CET) at University Park in 1987 marked an important transition in Penn State's efforts to monitor and improve the climate for diversity. This group, which is comprised of high-ranking staff representing various offices, was charged initially with designing and implementing university-level responses to acts of intolerance. Over time the role of the CET has evolved to one of continuous monitoring of problematic aspects of the University climate (related and unrelated to diversity initiatives) through weekly meetings. Occasionally the CET has undertaken proactive efforts to raise awareness and to communicate important University values. Examples include various poster campaigns with a variety of foci.

The CET is a nationally acclaimed climate enhancement innovation, but it is no panacea. To illustrate, efforts to implement parallel structures at other Penn State locations have met with only limited success. Initiatives to assess and improve the campus climate for diversity must be an ongoing activity at all levels of the institution and at all locations. Prior to efforts to introduce regular climate assessment procedures through the diversity strategic planning process, we were often forced to rely on information collected by volunteer groups. As an example, the assessment summits conducted jointly by the Commission for Women, the Commission on Racial/Ethnic Diversity, and the Commission on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Equity have yielded important "grass-roots" level information through focus group discussions. In a similar vein, the survey of the climate for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals conducted by the Commission on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Equity highlighted the disproportionate discomfort experienced by this segment of the University community.

For underrepresented students, the initial challenge of learning to navigate a highly bureaucratic environment like University Park adds to the sense of discomfort associated with being in a distinct minority. One of the most successful efforts to improve the hospitality of University Park for students of color was the "Buddy System" program, operated during the late 1980s through the Paul Robeson Cultural Center. This program made a faculty or staff "buddy" available to interested incoming students of color. The senior buddy served as an advocate, confidant, and support network for the new student. The retention rate for students participating in this program was 30 percent higher than for nonparticipants. This program has recently been reinstituted and expanded as the "Fast Start" program, which also includes an alumni buddy to provide additional mentoring focusing on career exploration.

The Paul Robeson Cultural Center plays a critical role in making the University Park campus hospitable for students of color. A new and larger facility will soon be constructed and the Center’s role as a forum for the exploration of knowledge of diverse cultures and as a "home away from home" for students of color will expand. The new Center’s proximity to the Hetzel Union Building will facilitate all students’ access to a multicultural experience.

Many of the most effective efforts to improve campus climate for students involve simply providing programming assistance to student organizations. Two examples of student initiatives that contribute in important ways to promoting a positive climate for diversity are the "Ebony and Ivory Program," co-sponsored annually by a predominantly black and a predominantly white social fraternity, and the programming of "Project Growth." Project Growth joined with a student planning committee in the Multicultural Resource Center to coordinate "Unity Days," a series of events designed to heighten awareness of diversity issues and to facilitate coalition building. Even more impressive is the fact that Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian American Awareness Week, and Pride Week (celebrating the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community) are all organized and implemented principally by student organizations.

There is, however, a need for improved support for student initiatives and additional venues in which student leaders can provide feedback and suggestions to offices with responsibility for improving campus climate. The Minority Roundtable is a recent initiative designed to address this shortcoming. Student leaders of umbrella organizations representing African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and International students meet monthly with the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, the directors of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center and Multicultural Resource Center, and other key officials. There is a need for a systematic approach to the cultivation of leadership for organizations representing students from these constituencies, as well as a focused workshop for leaders of ALL student organizations to increase their familiarity with the University’s diversity objectives.

It is also important to recognize that the intensity of efforts to increase hospitality has varied across groups. The most extensive activities have focused on African Americans and the least aggressive have been directed at lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. Given the anticipated increases in the number of adult learners, special attention should be focused on this population as well. In general, there is a need to undertake more intensive strategies to address the climate concerns of all historically underrepresented groups.

Whatever the difficulties may be in enhancing the climate for diversity at University Park, they pale in significance beside the challenges facing other locations. In general, it is more difficult to enhance the climate at nonresidential campuses, but efforts of both residential and nonresidential campuses are severely constrained by resource limitations. There is a need for a concerted exploration of strategies to enhance the climate for diversity at locations other than University Park for faculty, staff, and students.

The Diversity Strategic Planning process has led to a more systematic focus on climate enhancement and assessment in individual academic and academic support units. Most colleges and administrative units, as well as many campuses, have established committees to assist in the preparation of diversity strategic plans. Many of these committees have continued to oversee plan implementation and to serve as de facto Environment or Climate Committees. Each committee should be charged with providing oversight for diversity initiatives in the college or academic support unit or campus, as well as responsibility for the overall monitoring of the climate within the unit/college or campus.

The Diversity Strategic Planning process has also led academic and academic support units to assess systematically the climate for students, faculty, and staff. A variety of techniques have been employed including surveys, focus groups, and discussions between managers and groups. Such assessments have provided participating colleges and units with valuable information about the ways in which they might address problems specific to their own areas. At the same time, it has proven difficult to get units to share the results of their climate surveys with centralized areas charged with monitoring the overall climate for diversity. As a University community, no unit or college functions in isolation. A climate that is less than welcoming in any part of the University affects the whole community.

It is also imperative that units make effective use of information obtained from other sources, including the Staff Review and Development Plan Instrument, to identify climate issues and develop both unit-wide and individualized approaches to enhancing overall climate and individuals’ satisfaction with their environment.

The action plan focusing on improving the climate for diversity at Penn State is presented in the following text.


GOAL: Institute systematic climate improvement initiatives and assessment processes at all levels and locations


  • Develop a plan to enhance the climate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students, faculty, and staff
  • Continue support for units’ climate assessment efforts and coordinate comparison of climate assessments
  • Continue efforts to involve students actively in climate assessment and enhancement initiatives


  • Initiate a multifaceted climate assessment process including: regular meetings with faculty, staff, and students from diverse backgrounds, statistical climate assessments via surveys, and qualitative assessments via focus groups; Report findings to central offices
  • Establish a process to monitor progress in improving climate


  • Initiate pro-active, ongoing media campaigns to support efforts to create a welcoming campus climate


  • Monitor Staff Review and Development Plan submissions to identify climate issues


  • Assess the effectiveness of Residence Life and Centers for Community Education programs designed to familiarize students with Penn State’s commitment to creating a welcoming climate
  • Develop a plan to enhance the climate for adult learners and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students
  • Develop and offer a diversity training workshop for all student leaders of registered organizations