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CREATEngagement: Toolkit for Fostering a Departmental Climate of Engagement

CREATEngagement cover with group photo of people talking

This guide provides an overview of five characteristics of a positive department climate for faculty members. These provide a framework to consider the current climate within a unit, and identify strengths and challenges, in order to plan for improvement. No two departments or schools are exactly alike in terms of current department climate. Each has its own department history, rules (bylaws), and composition of faculty members. Sheridan et al., (2007) defined climate as “the atmosphere or ambiance of an organization as perceived by its members. An organization’s climate is reflected in its structures, policies, and practices; the demographics of its membership; the attitude and values of its members and leaders; and the quality of personal interactions.”


Five characteristics of an engaging department climate for faculty members are Collaboration, Respect, Equity, Assistance and Transparency. Each will be explored further in the following sections. These have been drawn from work with academic departments at other universities, as well as from themes in Stanford’s 2019 Faculty Quality of Life Survey.

Merriam-Webster (2020) defines engagement as “emotional involvement or commitment” and work satisfaction surveys and studies often measure factors related to relationship quality as contributing to satisfaction and engagement (Callister, 2006).

Factors that have been shown to detract from engagement with the department and the institution include, lack of respect, insufficient support for family and childcare responsibilities, lack of mentoring, unclear tenure and review processes, insufficient communication and access to information, lack of influence on department matters, excessive service responsibilities for underrepresented faculty and microaggressions, discrimination, and harassment (Aguirre, 2000; Callister, 2006; Settles et al., 2006; Stanley, 2006; Skachkova, 2007; Maranto & Griffin, 2010; Riffle et al., 2013; Campbell & O’Meara, 2014; Sheridan et al., 2017; Edwards & Ross, 2018).

The quality of interpersonal interaction, collegiality and connection among the faculty provides an important support and catalyst for excellence in scholarship and teaching. The climate of the department or school can help to engage and retain faculty members, enabling them to be more productive and do their best work (Campbell & O’Meara, 2014; Monk-Turner and Fogerty, 2010; Sheridan et al., 2017).

However the opposite also holds, and isolation and exclusion can be detrimental to productivity and satisfaction and lead to stress and higher intention to leave, especially among women and faculty members from minority groups. (Callister, 2006; Lawrence et al., 2014; Patridge et al., 2014).

The benefits of improving the climate, however, extend beyond underrepresented groups and increase productivity and engagement for all members of the department (Sheridan et al., 2017).

While the focus of this guide is the faculty, departments are composed of and depend on people in a range of roles. This includes administrative staff, research assistants, and trainees. Delineation between roles is not inherently problematic; however, a turn to systemic valuing (or devaluing) based on position type, function, or credentials, can lead to what Young and colleagues (2015) term “hierarchical microaggressions.”

The experience within institutional “microclimates,” such as departments, labs, or working groups, has a powerful influence on retention and engagement (Ackelsberg et al., 2009) and strongly affects perceptions of the overall climate of the campus (Mayhew et al., 2006; Garcia, 2016).

When allowed to persist, everyday slights of hierarchical microaggressions – directed toward a person because of the institutional role held – can negatively impact the climate for everyone and can hinder efforts to support an engaging department climate (Young et al., 2015). Thus, a fully engaging departmental climate is one that both recognizes the need for role delineation and extends the applicable aspects of the five characteristics across all members of a department.

Role of the Department Chair

The department chair is a central figure in the life of the department. They are an important source of information, as well as a decision-maker, assigning teaching and service duties, and resources to help faculty members achieve professional goals. The chair serves as an arbiter of conflicts that may arise among faculty members, and plays an important role in monitoring and maintaining collegial behavior within the department. A chair can also help to connect faculty members with extradepartmental groups and sponsor faculty for awards and recognition beyond the department. In all of these ways, the chair influences faculty members’ experiences of the department climate and can foster a positive and engaging climate, or contribute to a negative one. 

Role of Faculty Members

Each faculty member also plays a part in creating the climate within the department. Through interpersonal contact senior faculty members can help newer members of the department acclimate and make important connections within the field and the institution (Fleming et al., 2016). Participating in mentoring, whether formally assigned or informal in nature, is an important way to support each other. Mentoring is helpful at all career stages and can be peer to peer, as well as between more senior and more junior members of the department.

Faculty members can also contribute to a more engaging and supportive department climate by acting with respect towards one another, and standing up for department members who are the target of harassing, bullying or disrespectful behavior. The academic department has been compared to a family, with behavioral norms and expectations established and reinforced by the group itself. So, in this way, every faculty member is a contributor to department climate.

Five Characteristics 

Five characteristics of an engaging department climate for faculty and staff members are Collaboration, Respect, Equity, Assistance and Transparency. Please click each link below to learn more.

Collaboration Respect Equity Assistance Transparency

Interconnection of the Five Characteristics of an Engaging Climate 

Five characteristics of an engaging faculty and staff climate have been presented here as separate concepts. In reality, these characteristics are interconnected – when one is present it enhances another.

The opposite is also true, and if one is absent, it can make other characteristics difficult or impossible to enact. For example, respect is a foundation upon which collaboration and equity rely. Transparency can increase a sense of equity. However, without transparency about how decisions are made, assistance provided to some (but not all) may be seen as inequitable.

Of the five, respect is the most important and potentially the most difficult to enact. Respect is the basis for valuing and including others in the community. Without respect, harmful behaviors like verbal harassment, physical harassment, discrimination and bullying appear and flourish.

About changing organizational climate

Changing the climate within a department/school is very slow work. Typically, the impetus for such endeavors begins with a negative incident, or a slow build-up of frustration on the part of a portion of the department/school members.

As we have seen with the 2019 Faculty Quality of Life Survey data, the view of this smaller, less happy and more frustrated group is in contrast to a large portion of the population who feels the climate is fine as it is and that there is no need for change. Sometimes department chairs and academic leaders themselves may be part of the complacent group, because their own experience has been satisfactory.

Changing an organization’s climate requires finding a way to convince the complacent that change is necessary, while keeping those who are already frustrated with things as they are, onboard and participating together with the whole department/school to enact change.

Next steps

Take the 2019 Faculty Quality of Life Survey results as a strong indicator that each school and department has some room for improvement when it comes to factors that influence faculty engagement. Given what faculty members already know about their own department or unit, it is likely that they can identify one or more of the five characteristics described here as a priority for action.

However, the urge to gather MORE data is often a first reaction by faculty members upon receiving survey results of this kind. Many leap to the idea of developing a local climate survey and administering it themselves within the department. This takes a lot of time, the survey instrument itself can become a point of contention, and most importantly it poses challenges for data integrity and faculty members’ privacy. There are other ways to gather information than through a survey.

Consider what the endpoint of efforts to change the department/unit climate will be. Ultimately the members themselves have to agree on what they want the climate of the department to be and they together, through their own behaviors, will need to create the kind of collegial working environment of which they want to be a part. This requires communication and dialogue within the department.

So, instead of one more survey, it may be possible to go directly to other less formal and more interactive ways of gathering information and start a dialogue in the process.

The size of a department/unit and the nature of its issues should help determine how to proceed. In smaller units, with high trust in the department chair, information can be gathered by the chair through individual or group meetings, via email or in open discussion during a department meeting. The CREATEngagement Checklist (Stanford only)  could be used to spur thinking and to help focus the conversation.

If more anonymity is desired, or if the department is larger, a small committee could gather input through group meetings and interviews with faculty and staff members and then provide a summary of their findings to the department as a whole. Depending on the situation, and the kinds of questions being pursued, technology, such as Poll Everywhere, could be used in a faculty meeting to gather an aggregate high- level sense of the department climate related to the five characteristics of an engaging department climate and use this information to support a discussion.

There will also be instances where problems are deeply ingrained, or issues are already contentious, and an outside third party is needed to assist in the process. If this is the case, consult with your school’s senior administrators. The Office of Faculty Development, Diversity and Engagement, or the Ombuds Office may also be able to help by consulting with the department/unit directly or helping to find external consultants who can assist with this work.

Once information is gathered the department/unit needs to identify the most pressing organizational climate issues and prioritize action. Creating a committee to carry this work forward is a next step (if a committee related to diversity and engagement, or similar work doesn’t already exist). The committee would be responsible for developing solutions to address the high priority issues identified, and proposing these to the faculty for agreement, before working toward implementing ideas.

Maintaining and building upon organizational climate change

In order to support ongoing improvement, it is important to periodically assess the status of the department/unit. Some departments hold one department meeting a year devoted to discussing department climate issues. Department climate issues can become part of the self-study that is done for departmental review. In some schools, department chair evaluations include gathering information about the department climate. Department strategic planning can also include plans for improving diversity, engagement and issues related to department climate.

Consider ways to build assessment of the department/unit climate into existing reports and annual activities, so that it isnʼt separate from the departmentʼs normal business, but becomes part of it.

For more information and assistance:

Susan Drange, Associate Vice Provost in the Office of Faculty Development, Diversity, and Engagement is available to consult with department chairs, committees, individual faculty members and administrators interested in improving the department/school climate. She can provide guidance and point to relevant research, practices and resources from other institutions related to creating a more engaging climate for faculty members.


Phone: (650) 498-0350

NOTE: The five characteristics of an engaging department climate for faculty were drawn from Waltman and Hollenshead, 2005, Creating a positive departmental climate: Principles for best practices. NSF ADVANCE at the University of Michigan; Columbia University Arts & Sciences: Improving Department Climate: Tools and Resources for Departments & Department Chairs, March 2019 and Columbia University Office of the Provost: Guide to Best Practices for Departmental Climate, December 2019; Brown University: Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit #3, Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, website accessed February 2020.

Boxed quotes within CREATEngagement Toolkit were taken from Stanford’s 2019 Faculty Quality of Life Survey results.