By Logan Hullinger
INDIANA – A yearlong study of the cultural climate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania found an atmosphere that is comfortable for most and colder for some, its lead researchers reported last month. But according to one campus critic, the study pushes “a liberal agenda.”
Melanie D. Hildebrandt, Ph.D., and Melissa L. Swauger, Ph.D., assistant sociology professors at IUP, summarized the study’s findings in a Sept. 15 presentation at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex. Hildebrandt and Swauger led the study and authored the results along with a team of researchers.
A survey of IUP students and faculty members began in 2015, received 1,171 responses and was followed by 178 individual interviews conducted by Swauger.
The study concluded that members of religious, racial and sexual minority groups find the campus uncomfortable, Hildebrandt said.
“We found that many people are uncomfortable with the climate of the university, especially minority groups,” Hildebrandt said in during a Sept. 8 interview in her McElhaney Hall office.
Employees also expressed discomfort due to a “lack of diversity in the university’s leadership and decision-making processes,” according to an executive summary of the report provided by Swauger on Sept. 26.
REACTION TO the preliminary study results included a political critique. A self-described conservative student said the research is trying to “push a liberal agenda.”
“The survey was definitely not independently done,” Anthony T. Petrucelli, a sophomore political science major and former host of the conservative WIUP-FM talk show “Petro’s Politics,” said during a Sept. 20 interview in front of the campus library. “Look for the money behind the survey and look at the political agenda. I think it’s clear what’s going on.”
The university didn’t keep track of the study’s cost, Pablo B. Mendoza, assistant to the president for social equity, said in an Oct. 11 interview in his Sutton Hall office. He added that IUP President Michael A. Driscoll put a priority on expediting the process.
“He was very certain in approving the study as quickly as possible,” Mendoza said. “He made sure that all faculty involved would be paid for their work on the study when it may have interfered with their normal work schedule. But we don’t have exact numbers when it comes to the cost.”
Petrucelli added that the study was conducted “with an endpoint in mind, which was clearly trying to portray a diversity problem when there isn’t one.”
Petrucelli pointed to IUP College Republicans, a student organization, and Student Government Association President Brian H. Swatt, a member of the campus Republicans, to expand on his points.
The IUP College Republicans did not respond to inquiries through their Facebook page on Sept. 19 and by email on Oct. 24.
Swatt did not respond to Sept. 21 phone calls and Oct. 24 emails.
IN AN OCT. 12 email. Chris M. Kitas, associate director of the IUP Office of Research, Planning and Assessment, supplied IUP enrollment numbers by race dating back to 2007.
The numbers show the university’s enrollment has been predominately white. In fall 2007 with total student enrollment at 14,081, 10,438 IUP students (74.1 percent) were white, according to the statistics; 1,343 (9.5 percent) were black.
In fall 2016 with a total enrollment of 12,852, 9,278 students (72.1 percent) are white and 1,358 (10.5 percent) are black. Thus, in the past decade white enrollment declined by 2 percentage points as black enrollment rose by 1 percentage point.
Former SGA President Vincent J. Lopez, now president of the IUP College Democrats, disagreed with criticism of the study.
“To say that this study pushed any sort of agenda baffles me,” Lopez said during an Oct. 7 phone interview. “That is absolute malarkey.”
Swauger responded to Petrucelli’s charge.
“When someone is born with privilege, they often have trouble understanding those who lack it,” Swauger said during a Sept. 23 interview in her McElhaney office.
Swauger elaborated on the study’s origins and methods.
“The survey was commissioned by President Driscoll in 2014,” Swauger said. “This means it was considered with the university’s well-being in mind. It wasn’t only our doing.”
The study’s survey was conducted by Rankin & Associates, a consulting firm based in Howard, Pa.
“This tool is used by hundreds of universities,” Swauger said. “We had no input in the survey. We used the resources provided by a highly-praised company to get accurate, unbiased results.”
The results concluded that “in-group populations perceive IUP differently than out-group populations,” according to the study’s executive summary.
People “who are white, abled, heterosexual, from southwest Pennsylvania” are “in-group” populations, the report said. Any minority would be considered “out-group.”
However, the report said, “All groups on campus report being comfortable with the campus climate more than they reported discomfort…. But there are significant differences in how comfort is defined and experienced by different groups on campus.”
Hildebrandt said the report represents a start.
“It’s our job to make the university more inclusive and lower the population that still feel uncomfortable, or even threatened, on campus,” she said.
Logan Hullinger, a junior journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania from Clarion, is a staff reporter for The HawkEye. He can be contacted at L.R.Hullinger@iup.edu.