How Many UVa Students Feel Sense of “Belonging”?

by James A. Bacon

As the University of Virginia Board of Visitors grapples with contentious issues such as equity, inclusion and racial preferences, it could benefit by knowing how well the policies of the Ryan administration have succeeded or failed in making UVa a more welcoming place for students across “every possible dimension” of diversity, to use President Jim Ryan’s words.

The administration possesses considerable data to answer the question. During the final year of the Sullivan administration, 2018, the university conducted a comprehensive, in-depth “campus climate” survey. Since then, the university has participated in biennial surveys conducted under the auspices of the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) consortium, which, th0ugh less comprehensive than the 2018 effort and fraught with discontinuities in the questions asked, does contain useful information.

The university’s office of Institutional Research & Analysis posted results for 2022 for public viewing in August. The graphic below summarizes student responses to the statement, “I feel I belong at university.”

Three of five (60%) students agreed or strongly agreed with the sentiment that they belonged at UVa. Seventeen percent expressed various degrees of disagreement. 

Is that a good finding or a bad finding? It depends on context.

How do the numbers compare to other universities participating in the SERU survey?

How have the numbers changed? Is the sense of “belonging” improving, diminishing, or about the same?

How are sub-groups faring? In the context of ongoing debate over racial preferences, are the numbers improving for minorities, particularly African-Americans, whom the administration deems victims of systemic racism and to whom its policies are the most solicitous?

Unfortunately, that context is not available in the published SERU data. Institutional Research & Analysis posts “broad survey results” online. Members of the “university community” who believe detailed survey results could “help inform” their work are invited to ask for more detailed data.

Under Ryan, the University of Virginia has undergone profound changes in an effort to become more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive. The Racial Equity Task Force published a detailed critique of racism at the university and proposed exhaustive remedies. The Board of Visitors endorsed the goals of that task force, and UVa has integrated many of its recommendations into its strategic plan. The administration has removed the names of segregationists from buildings, built a memorial to enslaved laborers, and taken down a statue of Indian fighter George Rogers Clark. UVa has given preferential treatment to Blacks and Hispanics in admissions and has dedicated multimillion-dollar sums to recruiting minority graduate students and faculty members. In day-to-day discourse the administration has embraced the preoccupations and rhetoric of the leftist social-justice movement.

How has that worked out? Some might hope that this lurch to the left has succeeded at what it set out to do — to make UVa more welcoming to African-Americans. Conversely, observers who dispute the assumptions of the “anti-racism” crusade might argue that nurturing minority grievance and victimhood might make African-American feel more alienated.

It is worth asking whether African-Americans feel more included. We cannot take it for granted that they do. Kevin McDonald, UVa’s chief diversity officer, made the remarkable statement in the June Board of Visitors meeting that the sense of belonging of UVa’s Black students has gone down over the past several years.

McDonald apparently possesses data that has not been made available to the public. His statement is impossible to verify from the SERU results posted online.

One reason that it is difficult for the public to draw conclusions is the fact that some survey questions have changed over time. Another is that the Institute of Research & Analysis reports the sentiments of the student body overall, not of different racial groups. African-American students may have different perceptions than other students but, comprising only 7% of the student body, their responses can be drowned in the overall findings.

Given those caveats, let’s see what the data tells us. The following three graphs show the percentage of students, in surveys eliciting between 3,200 to 3,800 responses, who feel they “belong” at the university in 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2022.

2016 SERU survey

2018 SERU survey

2020 SERU survey

2022 SERU survey

To summarize the bottom-line results:

2016 — 18% of students overall felt to a varying degree that they did not belong.
2018 — 18% of students overall felt to a varying degree that they did not belong.
2020 — 19% of students overall felt to a varying degree that they did not belong.
2022 — 17% of students overall felt to a varying degree that they did not belong.

Over the six-year period there has been an incremental gain in the sense of “belonging” for the overall student body from a mean score of 4.54 to 4.58 on a six-point scale. Whether African-Americans share the overall perception is an open question.

Given how central the issue of “belonging” is to evaluating the effectiveness of Ryan administration policies, the Board of Visitors would be well advised to ask for the data Kevin McDonald was referring to. Designers of the Institutional Research & Analysis climate surveys should be invited to share their analysis with the Board.

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walter smith
walter smith
7 months ago

“Under Ryan, the University of Virginia has undergone profound changes in an effort to become more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive.”

This should read –
Under Ryan, the University of Virginia has undergone profound changes in an effort to become more “diverse,” more “equitable,” and more “inclusive.”

None of these words mean what the ordinary reader would think, and that is the point of NewSpeak that Ryan and the academy overall “speak.”

More fundamentally, what does “and Good” mean in “Great and Good? It doesn’t mean what the masses think, and that is the point.

Diverse does not comprise any intellectual viewpoint. It refers 80% to race, with a little tilt to sex for women in sciences, even though women are 55-60% of the student body. “Equitable” does not mean fair treatment for all. It means different treatment for “underrepresented” or “marginalized” to level the playing field so equal results BY RACE OR SEX result, and if they don’t result, then that is PROOF of systemic racism. Do you see how the scam works? “Inclusive” means you cannot disapprove of any “marginalized” group, unless such group is perceived as conservative, and therefore, by definition, racist, sexist, homophobe, and those voices must be silenced as harmful and violent in the UVA unequivocal free speech policy. See Bert Ellis.

Get back to education. Stop building hotels. Cut half of the worthless courses. Actually have free speech. Seriously, BOV…even if you are Commie Democrats, do your job. Does anybody in the Law School (you know, where the Constitution is supposed to be taught) have any problem over the last 4 or 5 years with Covid masking, lockdowns, mandated shots (against the Nuremberg Code), violation of religious liberty, censoring by the govt in collusion with big tech, mandated DEI loyalty oaths, lawfare against Trump? I understand you have Trump Derangement Syndrome, but is there no Atticus Finch, no Alan Dershowitz, no Nadine Strossen? No one with consistent American principles? All are good with destroying all of our civil norms to “Save Our Democracy!”? It’s a disgrace that there has been no voice against all of these outrages, and just proves how intolerant and monoculture the faculty is. To the extent there are 5-10% faculty in the center or maybe slightly to the right, they do not speak. Unequivocal my …!

Legacy Grad 69'
Legacy Grad 69'
7 months ago

Given the fact that some 98% of faculty & administrators are Leftists, I’m not sure I’d feel a sense of belonging at The University today with those adults in the room.

John Palmer
John Palmer
7 months ago

Seems to me that there is no statistically significant change at all despite a lot of misguided and perverse efforts to change something that did not need fixing in the first place.
Excellent comments, as usual

7 months ago

When I entered UVa in 1963 I was extremely proud to be part of Mr. Jefferson’s University. I was worried that I would not be worthy. The last thing on my mind was being “accepted.”

7 months ago

Given the evidence as to no statistically significant change in the student experience as to “belonging” over the course of Ryan’s tenure. A tenure in which diversity, equity and yes, INCLUSION have been Ryan’s oft stated and very clear primary objective is it not glaringly evident to the BOV that Ryan is responsible for and represents utter failure.
I do recall a time when grades were earned and not given. Is the BOV violating this UVA tenet and tradition. A double standard perhaps? A good example to students?

walter smith
walter smith
7 months ago
Reply to  Clarity77

I think Dragas was onto something, and, unfortunately, the BOV blinked.
The recent Alumni mag – pretty intensive surveys of the past 12 classes – has Jefferson’s legacy and the honor system AT THE BOTTOM. I think this reflects UVA recruiting students to the Left in general under the “holistic” approach, besides the rot we now see in K-12 (thanks Covid!).
No matter how much revisionism and contextualization UVA and the academic Marxists do, Jefferson remains a giant of history. “We hold these truths to be self evident…” – is there a humanly authored phrase greater? Only the ignorant can condemn him…or the evil.

Here is from the Board Manual –
SECTION 2.4 POWERS AND DUTIES — The powers and duties conferred upon the Board are to be exercised for the purpose of carrying into effect the Mission Statement contained in Chapter 1. The major powers and duties are

  1. the preservation of the ideals and traditions of the University and particularly encouragement of the maintenance of the Honor System by the student body;
  2. the establishment of general education policy;  …

How do you think they are doing?

7 months ago
Reply to  walter smith

Given the statement by the BOV, Ryan and student chair of the honor committee posted on TJC today could it be that they heard us? Or is it just lip service?

Kurt Elward
Kurt Elward
7 months ago

Regarding the most recent “Survey” of younger alumni – it was notable that a mere 5% responded. That suggests a far lower rate of engagement and clearly means we don’t actually know what recent alumni feel. They also got the YAC to help promote the survey, so there was likely a biased promotion as well.

Despite the rubber stamp that the Center for Survey Research gave, for a research and teaching university to actually publish such a report is frightful – they certainly could not get it published anywhere else. The conclusions in the article go far beyond any data there have and is – how to put this nicely – – yes, I have it – – a travesty of journalism and an insult to alumni.