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New England colleges excel in LGBT-friendliness

Posted by Jim Lopata  November 10, 2012 09:44 AM

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As high school seniors around the country are completing their admission applications and zeroing in on the colleges they hope to attend next fall, LGBT-friendliness has risen as a factor in the decision-making process.

To aid in the process, we are posting an article that ran in the September/October 2012 issue of Boston Spirit magazine that looks at the way campuses are rated on LGBT issues, with a focus on schools in the Northeast.

One of the most comprehensive surveys is the Campus Climate Index (CCI). Of the 35 schools with CCI public ratings in the New England area, 19 have a rating of 4.5 or 5 stars; meaning that, although area colleges only account for 10 percent of the total schools on the survey, they account for almost 20 percent of the highest ranked schools.

How Proud is Your College?

Boston Spirit takes a close look at universities’ LGBT-friendliness ratings

By Alan Tran

“I had some bad experiences at other schools that I visited,” said Cory Hernandez, a junior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “At Hamilton College, I didn’t really feel comfortable being queer. And at Wabash College, I felt extremely uncomfortable since I heard ‘fag’ and ‘gay’ quite frequently, and other homophobic remarks.”

Then Hernandez visited MIT. “I went to MIT’s Campus Preview Weekend in April and saw the Rainbow Lounge and learned about their programs, the Living Pink Guide, G@MIT, and other things, and was sold at that time,” Hernandez explained in an e-mail to Boston Spirit.

Hernandez said that although academics were his first priority, “queer-friendliness was a huge factor for me in choosing colleges.” The Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) recent groundbreaking survey “Growing Up LGBT in America” found that 63 percent of teens thought they would eventually feel accepted in their community — once they moved somewhere else. Often, the first step toward reaching that “somewhere else” is college, where young adults live on their own for the first time, often with other teenagers of diverse backgrounds. In this environment, they encounter diverse ideas and experience new freedoms that make it possible and permissible to experiment with sexuality and sexual identity.

As more and more teenagers start thinking that they might want to be in an environment that is LGBT-friendly, college guides have begun ranking colleges and universities on their LGBT-friendliness. One of the most complete guides for LGBT-friendliness is the Campus Climate Index (CCI) survey, an online survey of 51 questions which ranks institutes of higher learning on a scale of 1 to 5 stars for LGBT-friendliness.

Other college guides assess LGBT conditions on campuses, but none as thoroughly as CCI. For instance, the Princeton Review asks just one question on the topic in its 80-question survey: “Do students, faculty, and administrators at your college treat all persons equally regardless of their sexual orientations and gender identify/expression?” Newsweek and The Daily Beast use the Campus Climate Index and a handful of other sources, including feedback from College Prowler, a database for college rankings and reviews, to create a list of their top 25 LGBT-friendly schools.

But the Campus Climate Index’s purpose goes beyond ranking schools. Rather than make a list of the top 25 or 100 institutions, CCI’s five-star rating system is meant to non-competitively encourage schools to improve standings. It also encourages the creation of a national standard for LGBT-friendliness policies and practices. Furthermore, the index allows participants to choose whether to publicly come out with their survey results, or to keep them private, as an internal measure for their campuses’ LGBT-friendliness. It’s a useful guide for schools to see where they fit on a national scale, for prospective students to decide where to go, and for current students to see how their school compares and where they could improve.

But how well does the Campus Climate Index judge the LGBT-friendliness of colleges and universities? And how useful is it to the administrators who work with it, and the students who attend these schools? To find out, Boston Spirit first spoke with Shane Windmeyer, the founder of Campus Pride and creator of the Campus Climate Index.

The Campus Climate Index’s development began in 2001, six years before its launch in 2007. Shane Windmeyer, the founder and CEO of Campus Pride, which funds the Index, said he was first hired to write The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students, a print publication which came out in 2006.

“The college guide was a very commercial product,” said Windmeyer, “and I realized that once it comes out in print, pretty much it’s outdated. So the index was designed as an ongoing benchmarking tool that campuses are asked to update annually.” It is available to prospective students for free online.

In designing the survey, Windmeyer collaborated with a team of experts in LGBT college research, including Director of the Stonewall Center at UMass Amherst Brett Genny Beemyn, Ph.D, and Research Associate at Pennsylvania State University Susan R. Rankin, Ph.D., who is also the Research Director for Campus Pride’s Q Research Institute Higher Education. Together they formulated the 51 self-assessment questions currently used on the survey.

“While the college guide was going on, we were developing the back end of the tool, testing it with different populations and administrators who do work on LGBT issues,” explained Windmeyer. “We were testing it out on students from different areas of the country, on different types of campuses — Four-year college, three-year college, public, private, West Coast, East Coast — all kinds of campuses.”

When they initially published the survey, Shane said that about 30 campuses took part. Today, over 330 campuses nationwide have their survey results posted publicly, though Windmeyer estimates there are more than 500 schools in total that have taken part in the survey.

The top schools in New England are clearly onboard with the survey. Of the 35 schools with public ratings in in the New England area, 19 have a rating of 4.5 or 5 stars, meaning that although the New England schools only account for 10 percent of the total colleges on the survey, they account for almost 20 percent of the 4.5 and 5 star schools on the survey.

MIT ranks in that 20 percent. To get to the MIT Rainbow Lounge, a meeting space and support network for LGBT services, programs and activities, one walks down a flight of stone steps of the large and austere Walker Memorial building and into a basement consisting of long, dark hallway interspersed with closed doors. In another school, it might have lent itself to being used for storage facilities and as a home to spiders. But the Rainbow Lounge here is a beacon of light, set at the center of the main hallway. In case the multi-colored interior doesn’t tip someone off, there’s a “Rainbow Lounge” sign above the door. Inside sits a couch and comfortable chairs surrounding a low coffee table. To the right is a room housing a library of LGBT resources and media. On the left are two offices, one of which belongs to Abigail Francis, the Director of LGBT Services and Assistant Director of Student Activities.

Regarding MIT’s 4.5 star rating, Francis was modest, saying, “I think that’s a relatively good rating. It’s certainly on the higher end of things, and I’ve used it in the past to say, you know, we’re doing a good job, [but] we have some room for growth.”

Francis has worked at MIT for seven years. As the person who fills out the Campus Climate Index survey she’s become very familiar with it.

The Index provides an “LGBT-Friendly Break-Down by Inclusion Factors” on each school’s survey score page, with star ratings for eight categories corresponding to the survey question categories. On all but two, MIT scored 4.5 or 5 stars out of 5 (Campus Safety scored 3.5 stars and Recruitment and Retention 3). Still, Francis is hesitant to say how MIT stands on LGBT issues, saying the question is complicated. “There are so many departments, and living groups, student groups … they all have their own kind of culture,” said Francis. “I wouldn’t want to say we’re doing great everywhere, because I want to honor people’s experiences.” She pointed to the Living Pink Guide, a student-organized survey of students’ experiences within different living areas across campus, saying, “It varies tremendously — even within the same living area people can have a different experience. We also see students from all over the world and from all over the United States, so that plays into how people experience MIT as well.”

In addition to being a student at MIT, Cory Hernandez also serves as president of GaMIT, the largest, mainly undergraduate LGBTQ, student group at MIT, and he is the treasurer of the Gender Fluidity Group. He’s double majoring in political science and American studies, and during the summer of 2012, he worked as a legislative intern for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

On his experience at MIT, he said, “I think it’s definitely very, very LGBT friendly.” Most of the professors he’d known, primarily in the humanities and social sciences programs, were “pretty progressive,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever — in the two years I’ve been there — been called any names or discriminated against by anyone,” Hernandez said. He also credited the “You are welcome” campaign, started by Abigail Francis a few years ago, which offered a card for professors and staff to put on their doors to proactively show their acceptance and respect for LGBT students.

“It’s really great because you see those cards everywhere … and a lot of the feedback we get from students is that it’s very helpful for them to know if they’re going to office hours, to the student center or something, that they see this card and know they don’t have to hide that part of themselves if anything would come up about that.”

Hernandez also pointed out the Living Pink Guide as indicative of a range of experiences by students at MIT. “I think that the Living Pink Guide definitely highlights the fact that there are people who are in other situations.”

Innovative LGBT resources that students and administration implement, such as the Living Pink Guide, have no corresponding benchmark on the Campus Climate Index, which Hernandez thinks is problematic when it comes to rating how LGBT-friendly a campus is. Hernandez also pointed out that the survey asks questions about whether an institution specifically recruits LGBT students by doing things such as attending LGBT-admissions fairs, which MIT does not, but explained that MIT doesn’t attend admissions fairs at all.

The Campus Climate Index’s 51 survey questions are divided into eight categories: LGBT Policy Inclusion; Support & Institutional Commitment; Academic Life; Student Life; Housing & Residence Life; Campus Safety; Counseling & Health; and Recruitment and Retention Efforts. The overall weighting system determined by the researchers who developed the survey is a trade secret. Not all categories are relevant to all colleges, so they can opt out of three sections: Campus Safety, Counseling & Health, and Housing.

Nestled on the side of a small road in Vermont, surrounded by rolling green hills and in sight of mountains, among weather-worn stores selling maple syrup, is Marlboro College, another school that takes part in the Campus Climate Index. Ken Schneck is the dean of Student Activities and a professor of education there. He’s also the host of a gay radio show called, ‘This Show is So Gay,” which is pretty indicative of the college Schneck works at as well, though they would probably use the more inclusive term “queer.” The very small rural liberal arts college of less than 300 students does not have an LGBT Center or participate in LGBT-specific scholarships, but provides an undeniably LGBT-friendly campus.

Schneck has worked at Marlboro College for six years, and although his job description doesn’t include LGBT student-specific responsibilities, he’s among the small group that responds to the Campus Climate Index survey every year. In fact, none of the staff positions include LGBT-specific responsibilities. Rather, all of the over 100 staff members receive LGBT non-discrimination and inclusion training at the beginning of the year.
At the beginning of the summer, Marlboro College’s rating was 4 out of 5 stars, which Schneck described as “a mixed bag.” “I’ve spent my career working at quirky, individual schools,” he explained, “and the characteristics of the schools I work at don’t always fit so neatly into the Campus Climate Index. So, for example, our rating was downgraded because there are questions about whether or not you’ve trained your security force on LGBT issues, and we don’t have a security force here.” Since then, Marlboro has opted out of the Campus Safety section of the Index, raising their score to 4.5 stars. However, not having an LGBT-specific staff or resource center still causes them to lose points from the Support & Institutional Commitment section of the survey, which schools can’t opt out of. And while Marlboro exceeds the Index’s benchmarks in other areas — such as offering all-gendered housing, in which students can choose the gender of their roommate, to incoming students as well as all other years — the Index’s ratings don’t accommodate nuances like that.

Marlboro College doesn’t have strict majors, so Hannah Cummins, a student in her second sophomore semester at Marlboro, is studying “broadly.” “I’ve been studying a lot of feminism, race, class, gender, sexuality, ‘nation studies.’ I’ve also been doing some science and some photography. I’m really interested in herbalism and midwifery.” It’s a structure that caters to individual interests, culminating in a two-year plan of concentration junior and senior year and a thesis project based on that.

Cummins and her friends tried to explain just how queer-friendly Marlboro College is. “It’s hard to answer that, at least for me,” said Cummins, “because sure, there is a Pride group, and they are very active within a certain crowd of people, but these conversations about LGBT stuff will come up in just normal conversations.”

“I feel like one of the important parts of identifying as a Marlboro student is entirely based on your individuality,” said another student, Mason Jones, who also said that he had never been in such a small community with such a “high concentration of intellect,” and had previously felt “jaded” by the American university system. “It’s the eccentricities, and everyone’s personal panache that really creates the community in general. So when it comes to something that they’re identifying as gender or sexuality, that’s just another piece of their individuality that makes the whole community what it is.

Sarah Siebuhr, a student studying poetry and feminist theory, mentioned that although the campus’s small size was an asset, enabling it to be so accepting, it also made it difficult at times, “because here,” she said, “you have to deal with everyone.” But at least in respect to LGBT-friendliness, Marlboro College clearly stepped beyond the bounds of what the Campus Climate Index judges as benchmarks for an LGBT-inclusive campus, in ways that may have been difficult to quantify but were clearly evident.

It could be said that the Campus Climate Index, despite its limitations, also includes helpful measures for judging LGBT-friendliness that go a step further than those taken by other college guides, and which are also difficult to quantify: most notably, the option of choosing whether or not to make a school’s LGBT-friendliness score public or private. Early on, Boston Spirit corresponded with Husson University, which scored 1.5 stars on the Campus Climate Index, the lowest public ranking shown by New England school.

In an e-mail, one staff member wrote that, “As the advisor to the gay straight alliance on campus, I personally completed the survey over a year ago as a means to provide the campus with information about the climate for LGBT students on our campus. It was not intended for public viewing, but as an internal document to motivate changes. When I shared it with my Director and the Director of Human Resources, I was invited to share the results with the campus community and to explore methods for improving our score.”
The staff member reported that some members of the school’s administration had stated a commitment to LGBT students and provided support through student activities, and that the school’s counseling center was working to provide a support group for transgender students on-campus.

“We want to encourage every college campus to come out when they’re ready,” said Windmeyer, “much like we encourage young people to come out when they’re ready … But at the same time, if I were a college student who’s out, I would want to go to a college that was also willing to come out as gay-friendly.

“There’s nothing wrong with a college having one or two stars. What’s wrong is having campuses that don’t take part in the index, or don’t find out how they can improve,” said Windmeyer.

Windmeyer is also committed to improving the Campus Climate Index. He said that he hopes to update the Index questions by next summer, mainly around transgender issues. “We’ve already revised them quite a bit,” he said, “but we haven’t been able to get the funding to do that. … But we’re hopeful that by next summer, the schools will raise the bar, [and] for these campuses that have five stars, to challenge them to get more.” [x]

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author: Boston Spirit Magazine’s daily blog brings you all of the information you need on New England’s LGBT community. In addition to highlighting local and national LGBT news, we will also highlight local leaders from the worlds of business, politics, fashion and entertainment and keep you up-to-date on all the latest events and parties, hot spots for travel, shopping, dining, and more!
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