Survey: Minority, transgender students less likely to feel welcome at UW-Madison

November 3, 2017 GMT

Students of color and those who are transgender or gender nonconforming are less likely than their peers to say they feel welcome and respected at UW-Madison, according to a survey campus officials released Wednesday.

Just half of minority students — and about a third of transgender students and those who don’t identify as men or women — said they feel like they belong on the campus, compared to nearly 70 percent of students as a whole.

Students in those groups were also more likely to report they experienced discrimination during their time at UW-Madison, and that they seriously considered leaving the university.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank said the Campus Climate Survey — which gathered responses from UW-Madison students on topics such as how safe they feel on campus and their attitudes about efforts to bolster inclusion at the university — provides data to back up what officials have “long heard anecdotally.”

The survey results also illustrate a central complaint of minority students who led protests over the racial climate at UW-Madison in the spring of 2016: That the welcoming environment and sense of belonging whites tend to enjoy at the campus is not the reality for many students of color.

Katrina Morrison, chairwoman of the Associated Students of Madison, said the survey’s results were “no surprise.”

“It puts my experience and the experience of so many other marginalized students in quantitative data,” said Morrison, who is black.

Students with disabilities, women and those who are gay and bisexual also reported having worse experiences than the student body as a whole at UW-Madison.

But after UW-Madison launched a number of new programs in the wake of the 2016 protests, including new training for students and employees, Blank said the survey likely won’t lead to another wave of initiatives.

Its role is to bring better data to discussions about the climate on campus and help guide efforts going forward, she said, much like a 2015 survey on sexual assault did for that problem.

UW-Madison officials also plan to repeat the survey in four years to measure the progress of inclusion initiatives, she said. And administrators are planning a series of forums on campus to discuss the survey results with students and the public.

“We have to insist and ensure that every student on our campus is free from harm, has a strong sense of belonging and is treated with respect,” Blank said. “This is an effort that is going to require everyone’s involvement.”

Variances by race, gender

About one-fifth of UW-Madison’s student body — 8,652 students — participated in the online survey, which was sent to all undergraduates and graduate students in the fall of 2016.

The survey is the first of its kind at UW-Madison, but Blank said other universities have done similar polls of their students that also found disparities in attitudes and experiences.

Overall, 81 percent of students reported feeling safe, welcome or respected at UW-Madison very or extremely often. That figure was 65 percent for minority students, and 50 percent for transgender and gender nonconforming students.

One-third of transgender and gender nonconforming students, and 19 percent of students of color, said they had experienced “incidents of hostile, harassing, or intimidating behavior directed at them personally,” compared to 11 percent of all respondents.

Students reported incidents that happened on and off campus, and ranged from hearing disrespectful language and threats to shoving, offensive graffiti and fights, according to UW officials.

Asked whether they had considered leaving UW-Madison, 19 percent of minority students and 25 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming students said they had, compared to 12 percent of all students.

Few calls for change

But while a task force charged with reviewing the survey results recommended several general steps to create a better racial climate at UW-Madison — such as improving the university’s response to racist incidents — it laid out few specific calls for change.

The task force was led by Chief Diversity Officer Patrick Sims and Dean of Students Lori Berquam, and included several campus officials and faculty.

Just two of its 15 members were UW-Madison students, with one each representing undergraduates and graduate students.

Morrison said UW-Madison officials did not consult with the student government in putting together the task force; she said she would have advocated for more student representation if they had.

“That level of student involvement is weak,” Morrison said.

Sims said officials had planned to include more students on the task force, but that goal became harder to accomplish because the group worked over the summer.

Officials on Wednesday pointed to efforts that are already underway to improve the climate at the predominantly white university, such as the Our Wisconsin cultural competency program, which Sims said is meant to show students the “different lenses” their peers bring to campus. UW-Madison encourages all incoming students to take part in the program, but it is not mandatory.