An Interview with Nyree Gray, Chief Civil Rights Officer at Claremont McKenna
A deep dive on campus climate and how the Campus Climate Survey can help build a more equitable academic and social environment
Nyree Gray is associate vice president and chief civil rights officer at Claremont McKenna College (CMC). She has previously presented on a webinar for the American Talent Initiative (ATI) Academic Equity Community of Practice (CoP) and at the 2021 Academic Equity CoP Summer Institute, focusing on the intersection between campus climate and curriculum. In particular, she’s shared how she evaluates insights gained from campus climate surveys—which help institutions understand the extent to which campus experiences shape student perceptions and diverse populations feel a sense of belonging—and takes actionable steps to create an equitable academic and campus environment. In this interview, Nyree shares her insights on the campus climate at Claremont McKenna, particularly as the 2021-22 academic year, a pivotal year for institutions to re-define what their campus and communities will look like moving forward, is underway.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
CMC uses a campus climate survey to measure how students’ experiences influence their sense of belonging on campus. What were some of the key findings of CMC’s most recent climate survey and did any of the findings surprise you?
When it comes to campus climate survey results, what I find interesting is not only the independent response of this moment, but also the development of reference points over time that allow us to see inconsistencies or changes in campus climate. Coming into this most recent survey, I anticipated the results would be deeply impacted by the national conversation and political engagement of 2020-21. I think people are concerned about equity even more now and have started to broaden their scope of what it means to be inclusive and diverse in ways that expand further than race into the intersectionality of identities. There is a real yearning from students for the academic curriculum and the college experience to help them grow through those moments.
What I found interesting in the most recent survey was the fact that the issues we’re attempting to address are the issues of most concern to students, and that the ways that we are trying to respond to these concerns were recognized in the students’ responses as well. When I look at survey results and think about the mindset of students 15 years ago, the campus wasn’t always an integrated space for students—there were things you did in the classroom, things you did outside of the classroom, and somewhere in between, this sense of belonging was just “supposed to happen.” Now, I see a different level of sophistication in students—I think they’re coming through a system where earlier in their academic experience, in junior high and high school, they’re getting exposure to different aspects of literature, different conversations by different authors, and are thus coming into this space with an expectation of cultural competence from those who are in this space. Students are coming into college expecting—not just from those who are dealing in areas of race, but from all faculty, administration, and staff—a level of awareness and responsiveness to the needs of people from a variety of backgrounds and identities. I think that was really glaring in this campus climate survey in ways that I haven’t seen in the past.
What steps did CMC senior leaders take to digest the results of the climate survey, garner buy-in from stakeholder groups—including faculty, and plan for change?
As we started to conduct surveys and look at specific campus climate snapshots every three years, we noticed students saying, “I’m concerned that if I don’t say the right thing, I will just be ostracized, set aside, or ‘canceled.’” This was such a growing concern that students did not want to engage with their peers because they didn’t want to take that type of risk.
So, in response to this concern and in line with our general approach at CMC, we wanted to create intentional spaces that ask students to interact in ways where the goal is to actually engage and communicate with someone different from yourself. We wanted to help students build these skills and tools of conflict resolution, so as to not just avoid conflict, but to intentionally build the muscles to work through those experiences and to glean from it a deeper understanding of how someone else developed their opinion. This became a fundamental, intentional design that we integrated into co-curricular and curricular spaces, which forms the basis of the Open Academy that we have at CMC.
The other part is working to ensure that diversity and inclusion at CMC wasn’t siloed work. So for us at CMC, there was a deep need to first center our understanding on the student experience and look at institutional barriers to success. Then, under the guidance of our presidential leadership, CMC launched the President’s Initiative on Anti-Racism and the Black Experience. It was important for us to take a structured look at what each of our departments were doing to demonstrate a commitment to this work. We formed steering committees with students, staff, faculty, and alumni, asking for their perspectives and experiences to better inform how we can create better ways to support all members of our community. Having a structured model that hits at each aspect of the college in each population and having these connections that include students, staff, faculty, and alumni helped to build a greater community.
How is CMC measuring its success in response to the climate survey findings? How will you know if change is taking hold?
What I first wanted us to do was to use the findings to assess the things that we’ve already done and to see if any of it had worked. I think for awhile, we had the mentality of “let’s implement it and then let’s measure it later,” versus getting feedback in the moment as we’re going through it. We were getting outcomes, but we’ve done so many things that it was difficult to attribute the change to specific initiatives or efforts. As we’re trying to do this work with accountability, transparency, and metrics, I wanted to start off with a reflective assessment.
Now, the metrics part of it comes from the outset, making sure we’re asking the right questions, thinking about not just the pattern or the rhythm of when the measurement will happen, but what we are measuring. Is it success in connection with academic performance? Is it success in connection with retention of students? Actual graduation rates of different populations? What ways are we defining success as a result of this, and then thinking about how we turn that into instruments that we can measure, and I think that’s been foundational to the way that we look at progress now.
We’re absolutely still going to use surveys and focus groups, but these won’t be the only sources of information. The first step is to set up the instruments of what we want to measure to ensure we’re asking the right questions, and then to really spend some time on thinking about what are the questions we want to ask and what we’re going to reflect on—whether that’s actual change in student experience, outcome, and accessibility—and think about it in ways that reflect how students, staff, and faculty are experiencing the college.
How has the climate survey served as a tool for broader academic equity efforts on your campus?
I think the climate survey is a tool that I use to support the direction I’m getting people to go in. I use the survey results to show what the population that we care about is communicating to us, and I also try to make sure that we report out the survey results and work with the registrar, institutional research, and others to really try to find different areas to present the data for anybody who is interested.
On the faculty side, these conversations meant we had to take an honest look at the composition of our faculty, and acknowledge that it doesn’t matter if we have a thousand reasons as to why we don’t have more faculty of color or women. Instead, we have to focus on what we are intentionally doing to make that happen. So it took looking at the intentionality of the ways that we recruit for faculty, post open positions, interview, retain, and expose faculty to the broader college, and also taking that same intention and applying it towards administration and staff. Also related to faculty, one of the things that I’m excited about is the Presidential Initiative on Anti-Racism Faculty Fellows program, which was an inaugural program this year at CMC. We selected 15 proposals from faculty members who’ve committed to building capacity within the college to work on anti-racism. It’s been amazing to see the projects and the impact that they will have in the curricular spaces, including topics on required courses, ways we can talk more about issues of equality, and resources for faculty as they’re developing new courses, such as ways you can discuss this in the classroom and ways we can make sure you’re being responsive to students.
On the staff side, I discovered that several members hadn’t been asked anything in a long time. We survey students a lot, and faculty to a certain degree, but we have this gap in surveying staff—nobody was really asking them about their experiences, what they thought, or how integrated they felt. I can’t ask the staff to make someone else feel good or help them feel like they belong, if the staff themselves don’t feel like they belong. So, the climate survey will give us an opportunity to talk to different people about their experiences and help them feel comfortable with this intentionality behind inclusion and equity work. For example, we have a very strong facilities crew on campus, and I felt those people knew the students the best—they are with students all the time, in the same spaces, hearing the conversations that we probably couldn’t hear. They were a tremendous benefit in understanding what’s really going on with students.
In your view, how do CMC’s campus climate and the content of the curriculum influence each other?
I see that there is a student need for a more inclusive classroom experience, and I see faculty responding to this need in a variety of ways, such as making an intentional effort in bringing a variety of perspectives into the classroom. At CMC, we work on the Open Academy Initiative for that purpose—we are encouraging people in all spaces to engage in discourse and viewpoints that are different from their own.
I’m not going to say it’s all been perfect. I see some people who are resistant to change, and I think certain people think “this is not in my space.” But at the same time, I’ve seen this beautiful response from some faculty in certain areas who traditionally didn’t consider themselves to be a part of this conversation to really start to integrate that conversation in the classroom. For example, in economics, they’re talking about how racism and inequality can impact people’s access to resources, and in the sciences, they’re highlighting the chemist of color and highlighting the significant contributions from people of all backgrounds or talking about how structural barriers impact access to medical resources across different communities. So, certain faculty members have truly been intentional in thinking about how this impacts the space that they’re in.
For faculty, this is a part of retooling. We’re always looking for faculty to continue to grow, learn new disciplines, and learn new pedagogies in order to stay relevant. I think this message should come across in a way that gives everybody an access point to do this type of work, that no one’s excluded, and that people are supported as they retool and develop. There has to be an intentional way in which you communicate with faculty across the board, saying the way that students experience their academic learning is central to the growth of the college and for them as a student, and that the ways we can center the classroom to support learning based on the variety of learners is critical.
Reflecting on your experience at CMC, what advice do you have for other institutions who are embarking on this work? What do you wish you had done differently?
I want to start by saying that while we’re improving and we’ve made strides, we’re not quite there. I don’t want people to think this is a fix-it type of business—it’s all about continual growth. My advice is to not set the framework up like a capital campaign where you hit a target and you’re done, but always looking at it in terms of a process—we’re evolving, we’re growing, and we’re in constant discussion on how to move the needle forward. So, don’t set your framework around wins and losses. Set a framework around constant growth, because I think that’s what’s important and that’s really what we’re doing.
Additionally, I encourage people to seek input from those that you traditionally wouldn’t ask or include. I think it’s very easy to get caught up and say “I’ll invite this person because they’re supportive and they want to do the work; but I’m not going to invite this person because they’re not productive, they want to think about it in a different way, or they don’t want to be a part of it.” But I really want these people invited. I want people to hear about these different inputs. If someone is going to challenge something they’re going to challenge it sooner or later. It’s better you get the challenge early. I don’t think those opinions exist in isolation, and so if this is an honest critique of something that we’re doing to move forward, then let’s think about that and let’s encourage it. Don’t shy away from opposition—bring it into the fold and allow yourself to experience it. The concern is always that ideas will get shut down or progress will be thwarted, but I think if you are holistic in your process, you can find supportive ways for that contingent to feel like they are part of the process and progress.
All that being said, my biggest advice would be to never stop asking questions, but ask yourself the questions early. Don’t be so quick to rush to, “well, we don’t know what the real answer is, so let’s just go start shooting off survey after survey, or let’s bring in someone who can tell us the best practices from the get go and we’ll just implement those.” I think you need to first start a conversation around “what does success in this space look like?” Let that be your first conversation, because when you start off with “how do I help first generation students,” “how do I help students of color,” or “why is this population not performing?,” you start with a framework of limitation, one where somebody is lacking, as opposed to thinking universally what would be good for all students. So really, start from talking about what we’re trying to do in this space and then work backwards, because it allows you to see the bigger picture and develop a framework that’s broader than the limitations that you see in your population, broader than focusing on all the barriers, and one where we can support the entire population.
Any closing thoughts?
The privilege of what I do is that I feel like my contributions are long term because I provide people tools, and they leave this space and spread those tools. So, I want people to come into this work with the energy of knowing that what they do contributes to the next person. Students become their own leaders and their own journey seekers, and it’s not always just students—sometimes it’s a colleague, sometimes it’s just someone that you interact with for the moment. In closing, I think when we’re in this space together, it’s a special moment. It’s a growth opportunity for us all. I hope people continue to be inspired to do this work—it’s incredibly challenging, but it is so needed and so important.