Initial Publication Date: July 9, 2018

Understand Your Campus Culture

Information on this page is drawn from presentations by Judith Ramaley, President Emerita and Distinguished Professor of Public Service, Portland State University

Anyone who wishes to build support for an effort to address a critical problem needs to spend time first in learning more about the campus cultural context; how that culture shapes what people value and how they are likely to react to any change that might affect them. Although institutions of higher education have some elements in common, each campus also has its own distinctive ways of doing things and its own patterns of interacting. Significant change can stir up both interest and concern because, intentionally or not, the change effort challenges the assumptions that underlie everyday life on campus. There are many "unwritten rules" and subtle social cues in every campus community that are learned by observation and rarely spoken of out loud. As a starting point for creating space for change to unfold, it is helpful to try to identify and analyze these social cues.

Eckel et al. (1999) offer a very useful guide to analyzing institutional culture:

"Culture is the 'invisible glue' that holds institutions together by providing a common foundation and a shared interpretation and understanding of events and actions. Institution-wide patterns of perceiving, thinking and feeling; shared understandings; collective assumptions; and common interpretive frameworks are the ingredients of institutional culture." (p.22)

The problem with learning to read a campus culture is that most of it is either buried under the surface of our interactions or exhibited in ways that we rarely notice. In addition, larger campuses generally have a number of subcultures that exist along side each other without interacting much. With a deeper understanding of the many different subcultures that together form the larger environment in which you work, it is possible to build support for change efforts, gather momentum, and provide much-needed experience and knowledge to others on campus engaged in their own work.

Navigating your Environment

Navigating your campus culture as a whole can be tricky and requires a more holistic look at your department and institution and how they operate. Frequently asked questions related to campus culture include:
  • How can I get the attention and buy-in of senior leadership?
  • The culture of my campus is highly political/very much based on relationships/very symbolic/very structural? How can I launch a change in my particular environment?
  • I am an expert in my own field but do not know much about how my campus operates beyond the boundaries of my own department. As my project gets underway, who should I be keeping informed? Who outside my own department/program can be helpful?
  • I am a new president/provost/dean; how do I get started with understanding the culture and history of my new institution?

To learn how to navigate effectively through an environment beyond your own territory, it is important to peel back three layers of the cultural onion (Schein 1992). On the surface are artifacts, the visible parts of your campus landscape including things like the stories in your alumni magazine, your campus marketing campaign, and campus banners fluttering from the light poles. You also can see evidence in the stories that people tell and things that are celebrated in various ceremonies and campus rituals. Think of yourself as a cultural anthropologist or seek out someone who actually studies culture and ask for their insights into what evidence is on the surface of life on your campus that helps you to understand your particular campus culture. The next level down is a set of espoused values. This layer consists of beliefs about what is worth doing, what will be rewarded and what works. There are many ways that these values are expressed, from campus mission statements to promotion and tenure guidelines and more. For example, a campus community may embrace service learning across the curriculum, or focus on lifelong learning, or adopt its own approach to civic engagement. Buried beneath these espoused values are the underlying assumptions that are simply taken for granted and rarely, if ever, thought about or challenged. This tangle of assumptions can make a campus act as if it were pot-bound. Often, someone who is proposing a different way of doing things or who has identified a problem or an opportunity that is not on the campus radar will be held to a very high standard of proof while the people comfortable with the status quo will take that condition as a given and will not see the need to offer evidence for its effectiveness.

An especially useful visualization of these layers of culture can be found in The Superintendent's Fieldbook (Harvey et al., 2013). Although this text offers guidance for leaders in K-12, the image of the iceberg is a powerful way to unpack a campus culture. The visible part of the iceberg represents the things you are likely to see on a campus (Schein's artifacts). They range from the style of the architecture to noticing who sits with whom in the student union cafeteria. These observations can be used to begin to understand the more obvious signs of a campus culture and what shapes your common experiences there. Immediately at the surface is the layer built up of patterns and trends. These things are rather like ripples on the surface of the water that are caused by snags and other hazards underneath. A good place to look for a physical metaphor for this layer and the importance of paying attention to those subtle ripples is Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi as he describes his experience as an inexperienced river boat pilot. Just below that layer is the region of systemic structures that point our attention to thinking about what forces are at play that shape what we see on the surface. The vast, unseen submerged part of the iceberg represents the mental models that influence our underlying assumptions and which perpetuate the conditions that we see on the surface. Unraveling the connections in these deep structures can help us figure out why things work the way they do on a campus.Related Resource: Becoming a
Valued Member of Your Institution »

Exercise: Explore Your Campus Culture

The following questions provide a guide for starting to think about your campus culture and important considerations to take into account:

  • What do new people on campus say about their first impressions of the institution? What did they notice first and what sense did they make of what they saw or heard?
  • How do people talk about past decisions that have had a significant impact on the institution? What have your colleagues learned from those experiences about how things happen and who has the most influence over these kinds of institution-shaping decisions?
  • How do community people talk about your campus? Do those views match up with what experienced members of your campus community or newcomers or students say about your institution?
  • What does your institution or department value most and how do you know that?
  • Why do you want to do your project? What assumptions are you making and what core values underlie your own interest in undertaking this work?
  • Are your own values and expectations aligned with the main elements of your campus culture? If not, what might you do to describe your work in ways that fit that culture?
  • Are there some clues in these observations about how to make the case for the work you want to do or for expanding or continuing that work?


Eckel, P., M. Green, B. Hill, and W. Mallon (1999) On Change III. Taking Charge of Change. A Primer for Colleges and Universities. American Council on Education.

Harvey, J., N. Cambron-McCabe, L.L. Cunningham, and R.H. Koff (2013) The Superintendent's Handbook. Second Edition. Corwin: A Sage Company. 376 pages.

Schein, E.H. (1992) Organizational Culture and Leadership. (2nd Edition) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.