MSU evaluates campus climate for LGBTQ students

Study, discussion shows majority feel comfortable on campus

by Thomas Wesley

While news of several recent suicides of gay students nationwide and the recent harassment of University of Michigan Student Assembly President Chris Armstrong dominates the media, some colleges and universities are taking action to assess how LGBTQ issues are dealt with on their campuses.

Mid Michigan is not often considered a Midwest haven for LGBT people. However, at the LGBTQ Campus Climate Symposium held Sept. 29 on MSU's campus, a recent campus climate survey was shared that places the school in good standing in comparison to the national average.

Dr. Sue Rankin, associate professor of Educational Policy Studies and senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University, has produced completed assessments at over 90 colleges and universities nationwide, including the 2010 assessment completed at MSU.

Her study found that overall, 57 percent of MSU students, staff and faculty were either "comfortable" or "very comfortable" on campus. In classroom or work settings, 62 percent of participants said the same. More findings include that 15 percent of LGBTQ survey respondents indicated that they had been the victim of some form of harassment, verbal, physical, or other. The national harassment rate is closer to 25 percent of all LGBTQ persons.

The respondents were broken down into subcategories of heterosexual, lesbian and women loving women, asexual, gay, bisexual, and "other." There were 1,051 total responses representing faculty, staff, and undergraduate and graduate students, which were spread across the majority of genders and sexualities.

Dr. Rankin said that the university should take advantage of the time where it can guarantee an audience, such as the classroom or residence halls, to talk to students about LGBTQ issues. "We can't control what's happening off campus, but we can control what's happening in our classrooms," she said.

Rankin added that the study exposed that the majority of harassment for students comes from other students; similarly, harassment of faculty and staff comes from their colleagues.

Dr. Brent Bilodeau, associate vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and former director of the MSU LBGT Resource Center, noted that though there are many challenges for the Michigan State University community, there are few universities with the resources that MSU has to create positive change for the future. Strong support from the administration, Bilodeau said - including Senior Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Director of Student Life Denise Maybank and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Kim Wilcox, who were present at the symposium - plus strong alumni support, the number of out faculty and staff members and a strong student support system were all incredibly powerful in taking action for inclusion and changing campus climate.

Following an original campus climate survey in 1992, Michigan State University has set many goals of inclusion and multicultural competency for the entire community of faculty, staff and students.

In 2005, many LGBTQ community members called for a new survey to assess the campus specifically for issues surrounding gender and sexuality. Five campus entities - the GLBT Faculty, Staff and Graduate Student Association, the Center for Gender in Global Context, the LGBTQ Task Force, the Coalition of LGBT Student Organizations and the LBGT Resource Center - created a coordinating committee to begin the campus assessment and ultimately hire Dr. Rankin.

Some on campus, however, still feel that more needs to be done.

A Latino MSU staff member who wished to remain anonymous said that he found the climate study very comprehensive, but it did not provide much new information to him. "I feel that while the campus climate is generally hospitable for LGBT individuals, it is still not as welcoming as it could be," he said. "I feel as a person of color who also identifies as gay that I am not always welcome into gay communities on campus. It would have been interesting to see more comparisons among different demographic groups that participated in the study."

Thomas Wesley is a graduate student at Michigan State University in the College of Education. He can be reached at wesleyth@msu.edu.
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