Higher education was already reeling from a tumultuous 2015-16 academic year. Serious campus climate issues about race and class surfaced across the country in the form of student, and even employee, protests. Those protests came as a surprise to many in higher education who have worked hard to build inclusive communities on campuses. But they nonetheless clearly demonstrated that colleges and universities still have a long way to go.
Then last month’s presidential election sent another shock wave across higher education. It was a reminder that many experts, the news media, some elected officials and, to a certain extent, the highly educated elite are still “missing something.”
That something is a better understanding of what’s truly going on in our country, on our campuses and in citizens,’ students’ and employees’ lives.
If we in higher education want to have a deeper and clearer understanding of why there is considerable unrest on our campuses and across our nation, we must grasp a fundamental attribute of democracy that we seem to have lost track of: opinions being heard and counting.
Certainly, tens of millions of opinions were just heard in the form of votes cast for president of the United States. But being heard is about more than being counted once every four years. It’s about people being given a chance to exercise their opinions, on a regular basis, about many aspects of their lives. It’s about exercising their opinions at work, too -- where most of us spend many of our waking hours. It’s also -- most especially -- about people feeling that their opinions matter, that they counted and weren’t simply asked for. Those are very different things.
If, for example, you conduct a survey and ask someone’s opinion about something, that’s a decent first step. Certainly better than not asking them at all. But if you never do anything about that survey -- never provide any of the results or insights to those who responded to it and never take any action based on it -- you might actually be making things worse.
Higher education isn’t alone in this challenge; organizations of all kinds struggle with the process of collecting, disseminating and acting upon data. What’s clear, however, is we must both ask and respond. We also need to ask different and better questions.
Behavioral economics tells us that about 30 percent of the decisions we make as human beings are based on rational information, while 70 percent are based on emotion. Emotions are therefore the biggest driver of our decisions and behaviors, and they are as real as any concrete data might be -- in fact, they might be more so. Gallup research has demonstrated that, in the United States and across the globe, measures of people’s well-being (how they feel about and evaluate their lives) are often a stronger predictor of unrest than classic measures such as gross domestic product.
Behavioral economic measures of emotions will forever revolutionize how we come to understand how people are doing -- and how we can accomplish goals like building more inclusive communities. The only way to do so is to ask people directly and to ask questions about how they feel. This is not data we can gather about them; it has to be from them.
Gallup’s extensive research in higher education sheds light on the problems and opportunities for institutions of higher education when it comes to how they can build more inclusive communities. In the past year, Gallup has conducted several campus climate and employee/faculty engagement surveys for colleges and universities. What we’ve learned is that whether someone feels they are part of an inclusive campus community boils down to two absolutely crucial questions. These questions account for more than half of the variance in whether someone feels their campus is inclusive.
The first and most important question is whether they strongly agree that their opinions at work count. And the second is whether they strongly agree that someone cares about them as a person. Unfortunately, higher education institutions do not score well at all on these measures. Nor do K-12 schools. Teachers, for example -- of professions in America -- rank dead last in feeling that their opinions at work count.
Implicit and explicit in this is that institutions need to do more than just ask students, employees and alumni for their opinions; they must do something as a result -- whether that is communicating the findings and insights back to the constituents surveyed or taking action steps toward changes as a result of what was learned.
Emotions must be measured as well. As an example, think of how we typically measure something like student engagement. It’s usually about measuring activity levels -- such as how many times a student volunteered or visited the library or met with an academic adviser. Rarely -- if ever -- do we measure how they felt regarding those activities and interactions. Did they feel their adviser cared about them as a person? Were they excited about what they learned in the library? Did they feel they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom to their volunteer experience?
Higher education has worked hard toward creating more diverse campus communities. Indeed, as we look at the demographics of colleges and universities today, it’s clear we have accomplished a lot in this regard. While we certainly still have a lot of work to do, we’ve made much more progress on diversity than we have on inclusivity.
That’s a crucial distinction. Diversity is what we see. Inclusivity is how we act and what we feel. The two are interrelated, of course. Diversity serves as a foundation upon which inclusivity is built. But achieving inclusivity requires something quite different from what most of us have probably thought.
Before I started leading Gallup’s higher education work, I would have never guessed that inclusivity was fundamentally about opinions counting. But if someone doesn’t feel their opinions count, they are essentially and fundamentally disconnected from their community. What we have learned from the recent examples of student protests about campus climate and race -- and from many Americans in the aftermath of this election -- is that they are examples of people who felt their opinions have not counted for some time.
In higher education, we must embrace a new era in which we seek to carefully understand how students, employees, faculty members and alumni feel about their studies, work and lives. We have to move from simply asking about their opinions to ensuring those opinions matter and count. And we need to understand that people’s feelings are facts. We can’t dismiss feelings; we need to treat them with great care. If we do, we will make a lot of progress toward creating the inclusive communities we have long sought to build.