Discerning and Decoding Campus Culture(s): Questions Early Career Professionals Should Ask

My first faux pas as a faculty member happened in my first semester during a department meeting. We were having an animated discussion about our curriculum and it became clear the room was split on the issue. As the meeting approached its end, I, being helpful of course, quipped, “will we be voting on this before we leave today?” I then learned that in my department, we made most decisions by consensus— a revelation of department culture.

Culture, as a shared system of meaning encompassing beliefs, values, behavior, and material objects, exists at multiple levels within institutions of higher education. For example, both faculty and students shape the culture of teaching and learning, students drive cultures around athletics and partying on campus, and then there is a whole other culture around planning and decision-making both at the institutional and department level. While we may not encounter some of these cultures in our daily experiences as faculty members, and we would like to immerse ourselves in research and teaching and not focus on these less tangible aspects of our jobs, these cultures or the climate of higher education institutions affect our lives in indiscernible ways. For example, research shows that campus climate around racial diversity affects the retention of faculty of color, their satisfaction at work, and their tenure and promotion success.

For these reasons, prospective and early career faculty members must discern and decode the culture of the institution to ensure future success. More specifically, it is important to understand how the institution sees itself and its purpose within the contemporary higher education landscape. We must also care about how faculty, students, and staff perceive the campus climate and how the institution learns from its past and envisions its future. Finally, it is critical to assess the alignment between our values and vision for our own career and that of the institution.

For prospective faculty members, you want to discern the culture of an institution to create initial profiles of students, the department, and the institution, and assess fit with your values and vision for your career. For example, you can ask the following kinds of questions:

  • About students (from faculty, staff, and current students): What are students like inside and outside the classroom at this college? Why did you choose to come to this college/university? What aspects of this school do you (student) enjoy and dislike the most?

  • About the department (from senior and junior colleagues, and department staff): How does the department make major decisions? What are the relationships like among faculty in this department? What are relationships like among faculty across departments? How are faculty involved in the decision-making of the institution?

  • About the institution (from faculty, administrators, and staff): how does the college go about making major decisions? Can you describe the financial health of the institution? What is the relationship like between faculty and the administration? Additionally, to get a sense of the institution you can look at its strategic plan and budget information online, flyers around campus, upcoming events on its website, and any discussions on social media among students.

Once you have arrived on campus as an early career scholar, continue to gather information to refine your profile of students, the department, and the institution and assess fit with your values and vision for your career as they evolve. There should be three key organizing questions in this stage of discerning campus culture:

  1. Is this campus your intellectual home? While this question will mean different things to different people, you can pay attention to things like the nature of your conversations with colleagues. Do they understand on at least a basic level what you study? Do they have a general sense of how your work matters in your field and the world? Also, pay attention to the nature and variety of talks that occur on campus. Do these talks reflect a range of issues across disciplines? What are the emergent themes and leanings?
  2. What are the priorities of this institution? Service is one of the ways in which campus culture reproduces and sustains itself. Pay attention in your department and faculty meetings. What do you spend the most time discussing, and how are these topics discussed? What are the nature and variety of committees formed by the institution and department? Who tends to be on these committees? Who are not? This will tell you a lot about how the institution values its members’ time and who the power players are. For example, most institutions’ diversity and inclusion officers are women and people of color. This communicates a particular message about who is responsible for fixing what is broken.
  3. Does this institution value me in the way that I value myself?Tenure and promotion reviews are incredibly illuminating tools of culture because there are codified agreements and evidence about what the department and institution values. Pay attention to what and how your department comments upon your performance. Talk to people who have recently been reviewed about their experience. Pay attention to patterns and themes in and across these conversations and what resonates with your own experience. Trust your gut!

As I found out in that department meeting, we all arrive to our new jobs with assumptions and practices that may or may not align with our institution. Furthermore, our daily encounters with students, faculty, and staff often clarify how the cultural ideals of our employer plays out in real life. Discerning and decoding campus culture is a critical part of deciding if we can live with that reality, and, if not, providing us invaluable information regarding the type of institution that we would desire long-term.

By Naila Smith

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