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Diversity Competence and the Link to Institutional Accountability

Institutional Culture Leadership and Management

Diversity Competence and the Link to Institutional Accountability

The world of work has been transformed by the dramatic power of globalization that has reshaped when, where, and how work is performed. By eroding the barriers of time and distance, the global workplace requires individuals to communicate meaningfully with diverse others to solve problems that transcend geographic, economic, cultural, and social divides. In this rapidly changing global society, college and university graduates need to have the awareness, knowledge, and skills to succeed in a diverse, interconnected workplace and social context. As Thomas Friedman points out, high-wage, middle-skilled jobs have disappeared, and the capacity to innovate, as well as skills like communication and critical thinking, are more important than academic knowledge. Whereas prior generations tried to find existing jobs, the new generation instead has to invent jobs. As a result, the goal of education has changed. Individuals must be “innovation ready”—ready to add value to whatever they do. The result is the need for greater accountability in educational processes, or what Friedman terms “Accountability 2.0.”

Cultural competence is a critical skill needed by college graduates for success in a diverse global society. In this article, we explore how the attainment of cultural competence by college graduates strengthens accountability in educational processes. Cultural competence refers to the awareness, knowledge, and skills needed to communicate and engage with others who are different from oneself through interactions characterized by mutuality and respect. In Rethinking Cultural Competence: An Ecological Framework for Student Development (Jossey-Bass, 2016), we introduce the term “diversity competence” as a more relevant conceptualization in higher education because it encompasses the multiple types of diversity experiences on campus, whether in the curriculum, co-curriculum, service learning, residential arrangements, or interactions across difference.

Two external accountability frameworks offer the opportunity for colleges and universities to link the attainment of cultural or diversity competence by students with educational outcomes, what Friedman calls “Accountability 2.0.” First, the systems-based focus of regional accreditation provides criteria that enable colleges and universities to demonstrate the ways in which diversity learning outcomes are realized within the educational continuum.

Common themes that address diversity learning across the seven regional accrediting agencies include:

  • Structural diversity that takes into account the changing demographics of the student body as well as the faculty and staff. As research reveals, compositional diversity on campus offers the opportunity for diverse faculty role models, inclusive classroom experiences, introduction to diverse perspectives, increased cross-racial interactions, and alignment with the institutional mission;
  • Institutional integrity that connects an institution’s espoused mission and values with the day-to-day experiences of students, faculty, and staff in an inclusive learning environment;
  • Equitable processes that address how diversity is considered in admissions, hiring, retention, promotion, and compensation; and
  • Student learning outcomes that prepare students for careers and citizenship in a global society.

The second systems-driven accountability framework that reinforces diversity learning is the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) for associate’s, baccalaureate, and master’s degrees developed under the auspices of the Lumina Foundation. The DQP is a learning-centered framework designed to help institutions evaluate learning outcomes as a result of study for these degrees. With students as its primary reference point, the DQP emphasizes the degree rather than the field of study and identifies proficiencies in what students know and should be able to do as a result of their educational experiences. Beta-tested at more than 400 institutions in 45 states, the DQP bears a significant relation to the attainment of diversity competence through its emphasis on integrative learning and the identification of global and civic learning as one of the five key learning outcomes.

The dual pathways of accreditation and the DQP merged in the work of the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the accrediting body for institutions in 19 states in the North Central region. Between 2011 and 2013, the HLC piloted the DQP in 23 institutions as a demonstration project in connection with the launch of a new accreditation model: the Open Pathway. The Open Pathway focuses on institutional improvement and allows colleges and universities to independently determine and submit a major quality improvement initiative during years 5 and 9 of the 10-year cycle. One of the most common topics submitted has been cultural competency and efforts to create a quality culture.

The HLC has played a leading role in calibrating accreditation processes to the needs of 21st century education and providing alternative accreditation methodologies. The HLC espouses education for a diverse, interconnected world as one of its ten guiding values. It specifically emphasizes the need for students to gain the civic learning and intellectual capabilities needed for workplace success. Besides the Open Pathway, the HLC launched the groundbreaking Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) in 1999 as an alternative accreditation vehicle. The AQIP accreditation model offers a systems-based portfolio structure that focuses on continuous improvement in categories that include helping students learn and meeting students’ and other key stakeholders’ needs.

In what ways do accreditation criteria and the DQP provide an impetus for strengthening diversity within the campus ecosystem? The DQP provides an opportunity for a more integrated approach to the effectiveness of higher learning. Specifically, the criteria for civic and global learning indicate that students “must demonstrate integration of their knowledge and skills by engaging with and responding to civic, social, environmental, and economic challenges at local, national, and global levels.” Later developments in the DQP process involve a tuning process by which faculty provide field-specific learning outcomes and expectations related to their domains of specialized knowledge.

Both the HLC’s Open Pathway and the AQIP accreditation models include factors that link to diversity learning. As values-driven and process-oriented frameworks, the AQIP and the Open Pathway accreditation processes emphasize integration of institutional curricular and co-curricular practices that focus on student learning as well as improving institutional infrastructure and culture. The six major categories in the AQIP model are: 1) helping students learn; 2) meeting student and other stakeholder needs; 3) valuing employees; 4) planning and leading; 5) knowledge management and resource stewardship; and 5) quality overview.

The importance of diversity competence for success in a diverse workforce is reflected in the narratives of recent graduates in the survey we conducted for Rethinking Cultural Competence. For example, Mai, an Asian graduate of a private liberal arts college who now serves as an administrator in a nonprofit organization, observes:

  • It [my undergraduate experience] prepared me naturally to respect differences  . . . and just having that kind of respect, I find helps me to get along with coworkers from other backgrounds.

Similarly, Michael, a white male graduate of a Midwestern public research university who works as a technical recruiter in the information technology industry, reflects on how his experiences with diversity in college strengthened his understanding of difference:

  • I developed or at least strengthened the ability to be nonethnocentric. These classes helped me view others’ perspectives and apply them to real conversations and working relationships with people from varying backgrounds, ethnicities, and/or races. I think it is extremely important for the workplace now, the industry that I am in.

As these examples clearly demonstrate, diversity learning outcomes are a critical component of the postsecondary experience that enables graduates to work collaboratively across demographic boundaries. By leveraging external accountability systems, colleges and universities can ensure that graduates have the diversity competence that not only makes them “innovation ready” but also equipped with the capabilities needed to communicate meaningfully in a diverse workplace, integrate multiple perspectives to solve complex problems, and add value in a global society.


T. Friedman, “Need a Job? Invent It,” The New York Times, March 30, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/03/31/opinion/sunday/friedman-need-a-job-invent-it.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share

Alvin Evans and Edna B. Chun, DM, are award-winning authors, each with more than two decades of experience in higher education. Edna Chun is chief learning officer and Alvin Evans is a higher education practice leader for HigherEd Talent, a national HR and diversity consulting firm.


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