Guest Column: Culture – It keeps you here or it drives you away

Blanche Hughes and Sue James

Vice President for Student Affairs Blanche Hughes and Mechanical Engineering Professor Sue James, Co-Chairs with the President’s Council on Culture.
Photo by John Eisele, CSU Photography

Both of us have been at Colorado State University for a long time, and a lot has changed during our tenure here. We arrived when there was no President’s Council on Culture, no Vice President for Diversity, no Principles of Community and certainly no Facebook or other social media platforms which could serve as a public forum to draw attention to how we treat each other, and debate the consequences of intended and unintended harm.

We came here for the opportunity of professional and personal growth and stayed because our work was rewarding, meaningful and could change the lives of others. When Sue interviewed for a faculty position in mechanical engineering 25 years ago, she was struck by the “can do” attitude. The department had an entrepreneurial mindset, there were no rules that couldn’t be broken, no intellectual boundaries that held back discovery. She found this freeing as she compared career notes with her friends who were assistant professors at universities where rules for the sake of rules stifled creativity.

We need your input

The PCC needs your help to form a vision for what we want our culture to be, to assess our current culture and implement overall culture improvement. Please share your thoughts and ideas with the committee through the website.

When Blanche first set foot on campus as a new graduate student pursuing her master’s degree in education (followed by her doctorate in sociology), she was impressed with the friendliness of CSU. She also realized during orientation that many of the staff and faculty assisting her and other students had been at CSU for a long time. This clearly was a place where employees were able to grow their careers and were encouraged to take advantage of professional development opportunities, complete their educational goals, and strive to make the campus a better place for students, faculty, and staff.  She has found this to be true for herself as well.

What we each experienced as newcomers to CSU was a reflection of the culture we perceived, and it kept us here. The collective behaviors, systems and practices of the university and those with whom we engaged as a new student and a new employee aligned with our personal values. But we know that is not the case for everyone who comes to CSU to work or learn. We can usher great people across the threshold of this campus with the promise of inclusivity, equity, success and our other institutional values. But if the “this is who we are” culture we espouse is not the one experienced by a member of our campus community, it will drive them away.

This is why President Tony Frank announced the formation last November of the CSU President’s Council on Culture or PCC. President Frank asked us to co-chair this leadership group with him, and we are proud to serve alongside him and two dozen other student, faculty and staff representatives who seek to bring about culture change. The PCC provides leadership, oversight, awareness, and accountability to efforts to evolve the University’s culture so that it is more equitable, inclusive, and representative of the world and populations CSU serves as an institution of higher education and as an employer of choice.

Since it first convened in January, the PCC has been working to develop goals, and establish teams to get work done. For example, one of our objectives is to identify and celebrate units on campus that are making significant and lasting improvements to their culture, and we will be announcing a new award at the Celebrate! Colorado State Awards on April 10.

Uphold Principles of Community

The Council also will create a report of accountability for its activities each year, and provide it to the University community by June 30. And we have begun planning a series of campus culture listening sessions to hear from our campus community, reveal barriers and areas of concerns, identify cultural strengths, and to help us set priorities for implementing recommendations. The council’s work is driven by the principles of accountability, consistency, and transparency, and the desire to uphold our Principles of Community.

Culture and climate are interleaved concepts, but are not the same. Climate is the perceptions and attitudes people have about an organization. Each one of us on campus perceives CSU’s climate personally and uniquely. Culture is many-faceted and complex, and is the collective set of expectations for behavior within an organization that are reinforced over time. Culture is how we work and learn together, it’s how we understand what behavior is okay, and what is not okay. It’s our shared beliefs about CSU – the unwritten rules that guide our actions.

An organization’s culture determines its climate, so the only way to improve the climate is to improve the culture. The only way to improve culture is to change behavior. We know we have different microcultures across campus, but if we can orchestrate culture assessment and improvement for CSU overall, we can help units across campus do the same.

The “can do” attitude may make us more entrepreneurial, but ignoring rules can lead to a lack of consistency and transparency. Many of us know rule breakers who cause significant problems; yet holding those individuals accountable is not always easy and straight forward. Additionally, our culture continues to be a place of frustration for those with marginalized identities. Getting people to embrace and be more inclusive of those with different backgrounds, perspectives, and histories is an ongoing challenge. The PCC knows there is much work to be done to improve culture for all our community members, and we will be examining what role we can play to make a difference.

At a recent council meeting, Dr. Frank said, “We’ve done a lot to improve culture and climate on this campus, but we continue to struggle.” Culture change is a long, arduous, messy and uncomfortable process that, if done right, never ends.  The President’s Council on Culture aims to ensure CSU is a learning organization that is constantly assessing and improving our culture because it is critical to access and, therefore, at the core of our mission. Vance Payne, one of the student representatives on PCC, stated it quite clearly: “Culture: it keeps you here or it drives you away.” Our aim is to keep you here.