Digest No. 10 - March 2022

The Duopoly of Diversity Data: Using Nuanced Data to Understand Diversity

Winkler, C. E., M. Mayhew, and A. Rockenbach. 2021. “Beyond the Binary: Sophisticating Diversity Climate Considerations and Assessments.” Research in Higher Education 62: 556–568.


This article explores the intricacies of studying diversity climates at institutions and extends conversations of diversity climate beyond simple dichotomies of good or bad, positive or negative, productive or unproductive. The authors argue that diversity climate information is highly complex, pushing scholars and leaders beyond the comforts of arbitrary—however, efficient—labeling practices that may do more harm than good. In the context of this study of religious, spiritual, and secular diversity, the authors suggest that some climates may inspire the type of diversity experiences that optimize student learning.

Discussion of the Findings

Building on the strong work of Hurtado et al. (2008) and Harper and Hurtado (2007), the study empirically demonstrates what these scholars and others have suggested for a long time—that diversity climates are complicated to understand and even more difficult to assess. If not evaluated well, these factors can lead decision makers to faulty conclusions about how to advance justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus.

Using a higher-order factor model, the authors derived three ways of thinking about campus climate. The first, the productive climate, includes policies and practices that support students in wrestling with the discomfort often engendered by interactions with people across religious, spiritual, and secular difference. The second is the unproductive climate where students are unsupported and left struggling with dissonance on their own: Due to this lack of support, students often experience psychological retreat and increasingly employ stereotypes. The third involves a provocative climate where students are in spaces that are neither productive or unproductive, but rather where they “are in the process of rethinking [their] assumptions about their own and other’s worldviews as a result of challenging discussions, disagreements, and even criticism.”

Implications for Action by Campus Leaders

Campus leaders are encouraged to assess their climates for diversity. This may involve a hybrid approach that both outsources evaluation to research shops equipped for benchmarking information in ways that make sense for the institution while also charging internal committees with the task of collecting their own data that speak specifically to the institution’s practice.

Although information efficiencies often become more accessible through the use of bifurcated frameworks (for instance, good vs. bad, this vs. that), this oversimplification may lead to lost information or even misinformation that might undermine the assessment effort. The importance of disaggregating the data is key to understanding and utilizing results from climate surveys. This can present a unique concern for smaller institutions as the size of certain groups of students, faculty, or staff can become very small, very quickly; efforts should then be focused on protecting identities as much as possible but also understanding the nuances found on campus. Given the complexity of ideas involved with improving diversity practice, administrators and educators should pause and think outside of the box regarding diversity data gathering and analysis. Doing so may just inspire the kind of changes students need to feel supported as they struggle with encountering difference and their own lived experience, often for the first time in their lives.


Christa Winkler is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Mississippi State University.

Matthew J. Mayhew is William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration in the Department of Educational Studies at the Ohio State University.

Alyssa Rockenbach is a professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Hurtado, S., K. A. Griffin, L. Arellano, and M. Cuellar. 2008. “Assessing the Value of Climate Assessments: Progress and Future Directions.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 1 (4): 204–221.

Harper, S. R., and S. Hurtado. 2007. “Nine Themes in Campus Racial Climates and Implications for Institutional Transformation.” In Responding to Realities of Race on Campus: New Directions for Student Services 120: 7–24, edited by S. R. Harper and L. D. Patton. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.