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Working Environments at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University

An overhead view of a group of buildings along a coastline
Qualitative interviews examined “microclimates” in academic departments at the two schools
  • Client
    University of Chicago, Northwestern University
  • Dates
    2012 - 2014

UChicago and Northwestern sought insights into faculty attitudes at the “microclimate” level.

The University of Chicago (UChicago) and Northwestern University wanted to better understand faculty members’ perceptions of the working climates within their departments. While both institutions have participated in climate surveys using nationally normed methodologies, such surveys are incapable of detecting the microclimates of individual departments and do not capture the richness of detail that a qualitative interview can gather. UChicago and Northwestern hoped to learn more about questions such as:

  • How do faculty members perceive their working environments?
  • How should university staff determine if new policies and practices are needed to maximize faculty success and improve the working environment within specific departments and throughout the university?

NORC qualitatively investigated faculty perceptions at the two schools.

UChicago and Northwestern engaged NORC to conduct 113 in-person, semi-structured, qualitative interviews with current faculty members in the biological and physical science departments at each university. Key topics included:

  • climate differences between female and male faculty members
  • working and personal relationships in each department
  • positive and challenging aspects of the department
  • work-life balance
  • over-all climate and satisfaction

Leaders at UChicago and Northwestern were better equipped to support faculty.

The interviews provided UChicago and Northwestern with detailed, confidential information about faculty members’ lived experience and the context of their working climates. This information allowed the universities to make policy decisions that better supported their academic communities. Not only did this study provide critical information for UChicago and Northwestern, but the researchers found it useful for future studies, suggesting shorter interviews for busy faculty and highlighting potential opportunities for improvement as a recruitment strategy. The findings from the interviews suggest process and procedural improvements could be made in the following areas:

  • initial transition into the university faculty
  • tenure and promotion processes
  • department and institutional climates, generally
  • support for work-life balance
  • approaches to ensure and confirm new faculty are happy with their decision to join the university

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