January 10, 2012

On Gay-friendly college rankings

Over the years, several outlets have purported to have their finger on the pulse of "LGBT-friendly" colleges and universities. The Advocate's guide, published in coordination with Campus Pride  is one of the more popular ones. Then of course, there's the Princeton Review, and even a Newsweek/Daily Beast effort. Jenna Johnson at the Washington Post's Campus Overload has a new story about LGBT-friendly college rankings, and while it sheds some light on the issues around reporting the friendliness of institutions, it falls a bit short. 

Johnson quotes Shane Windmeyer, Executive Director of Campus Pride as saying the problem with many rankings is, it's most likely straight people filling out the questionnaires about their campus; straight people who may not be the best people to opine on the state of their LGBTQ campus community. Unfortunately, this insight comes at the end of the article, and seems to be something of a postscript. 

This is exactly the problem with these campus ratings. What these indexes and ratings systems attempt to do is provide prospective students an understanding of campus climate. Campus climate studies are long-standing staple tool of educational researchers intent on understanding how the community and campus support, include, and interact with marginalized students, faculty and staff. They also measure how those marginalized communities feel about their level of inclusion, the support and visibility they receive, and often identify areas for growth within an institution. To that end, climate studies have been conducted to help researchers, higher education scholars, administrators, and others concerned with colleges and universities, to understand just what is going on with women, people of racial and ethnic minority backgrounds, and LGBTQ people. These studies, at least the ones that are published, are often conducted in a scientific manner, using some sort of sampling methods to reduce sampling bias. They have theoretical frameworks that guide their interpretations of results, and rely on an understanding of the institutional environment of colleges and universities. 

In contrast, the studies conducted by organizations such as The Daily Beast/Newsweek, and the Princeton Review, seem to follow less stringent guiding principles. According to the Washington Post article, the Princeton Review relies on the responses of 120,000 student responses to the question:

“Do students, faculty, and administrators at your college treat all persons equally regardless of their sexual orientations and gender identify/expression?” 

While this question may vary well appear on just about every campus climate survey in some form or another, it presumes and understanding on the part of the respondent to understand what gender identity and expression are as concepts. I doubt many students outside of the Gender and Women's studies programs on most campuses understand the distinction between the two, much less are able to provide an accurate account of their campus' efforts on behalf of transgender students. Furthermore, a numerous studies show that majority populations woefully underestimate the experiences of marginalized groups. To ask straight students whether the campus is a safe space for LGBTQ people will most likely result in an incomplete and inaccurate interpretation of the actual experience of students. 

The real problem is, asking people who don't identify as LGBTQ about what life is like for LGBTQ people will inevitably result in a marginalization of the real issues facing the community. As our society shift to become more and more accepting of LGBQ people, overt homophobic acts will become increasingly rare, leading people to think all's well. Fortunately, overt homophobia is becoming rarer on college campuses, but microaggressions are alive and well. Facing outward real and symbolic violence will becoming increasingly rare, but will be replaced with the thousands of small cuts of microaggressions. This says nothing about the experience of transgender people in colleges and universities. I need an entirely different post to talk about the issues for transgender people, but I will leave it to say the experiences of campus transgender communities are even less well understood, and likely the most inaccurately described. 

In the end, it is important to keep in mind the scope and lens through which these rankings are created. Who is being asking about LGBTQ issues? What questions are being asked, and what measures are being recorded? Instead of relying on guidebooks, it would be more beneficial for LGBTQ students to contact the LGBTQ resource center at the institution they're looking to attend. Ask the director what the climate is like. Ask to speak to some of the students mulling about the LGBTQ center their opinion. Try to go on a campus visit, and see what the feeling is like in person. Talk to the Gender and Women's Studies program about, or try e-mailing a dean in charge of multicultural or LGBTQ affairs, and see if there are any students they know who might be willing to speak about their experiences. There are many, many options for finding the answers, and they're better than relying on a rankings book. 

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