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Rethinking Cultural Competence: Key Considerations for Academic Leadership

Institutional Culture Students

Rethinking Cultural Competence: Key Considerations for Academic Leadership

With the surge of student demonstrations regarding race relations last fall, nearly three-fourths of the demands posted by students at 73 US colleges and universities emphasized the need for new or revised cultural competency or diversity training. The students underscored the need for all campus constituencies, including faculty, administrators, staff, and students, as well as the police to increase their overall cultural competency (Chessman and Wayt 2016).

Clearly, cultural competence is a critical skill needed for college graduates to interact, work, and navigate in a diverse global society. Yet for the most part, colleges and universities have not adopted a systematic, integrated approach to the attainment of cultural competence and diversity learning outcomes in the undergraduate experience. Although the helping professions such as social work, medicine, counseling, and nursing have long recognized the critical nature of cultural competence in working with diverse clienteles, institutions of higher education have struggled with the incorporation of cultural competence as an integral part of the undergraduate curriculum and co-curriculum.

Why has this been the case? The multiplicity of definitions and overlap among similar terms such as multicultural competence and intercultural competence have caused significant confusion. To some, cultural competence is viewed as primarily connected with study abroad programs and international education. Through the medium of celebratory events such as festivals and potlucks, cultural competence is frequently stripped of the uncomfortable connotations associated with inequality, social stratification, and privilege. Furthermore, faculty focused on disciplinary knowledge sometimes view cultural competence as simply a form of politically correct jargon unrelated to critical learning outcomes. 

In our new book, Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education: An Ecological Framework for Student Development (2016), we suggest diversity competence, an alternative term, to encompass the range of educational experiences on campus and to emphasize the attributes that comprise diversity, whether related to cultural differences or not. Further, we examine predominant fallacies that accompany the notion of culture, given the fluidity, complexity, and contextual nature of social identities.

In exploring the ways in which colleges and universities have addressed diversity competence, we draw on the observations of recent college graduates now working as professionals or continuing graduate studies. Most graduates reported that their experiences with diversity were purely accidental, either through elective courses, encounters with diverse individuals on campus, or work as resident advisors. A few reported the significant influence of faculty mentors. Yet in almost all cases, the colleges or universities the students attended did not provide a well-coordinated, intentional, and holistic approach to diversity learning across the multiple domains of the undergraduate experience.

Take, for example, the observations of Martin, who now serves as a clinical professor in a western doctoral research university. Martin viewed cultural competence as simply another vague term similar to diversity and registered his disappointment with the alienation he felt as an African American graduate student at a Midwestern research university. As Martin explains, “Cultural competency is the child of diversity. So, before, we had never talked, then here we go with cultural competency, come the twin flavor of the century with diversity, but we are still at same place: we are still at a place that we have no idea what that means.”

Martin was severely disappointed by the campus racial climate and absence of diversity awareness at a predominantly white research university. As he explains:

“It challenged my sense of identity because once again I was reminded of what the world thought of me, you know those historical perceptions of race. . . . I found [my]self fighting for four more years to prove [myself]; it sort of made me bitter. I would say it strengthened me in terms of my resolve, but I wouldn’t say it was like a positive strategy. But I have seen some of my peers—[either] they rebelled . . . or some of them dropped out. But the others who made it, it was like building up of a callous on the hand; that’s what it did for me.” 

What, then, are some of the concrete steps that academic leaders can take to address the need for diversity competence in the undergraduate experience? One of the areas of highest priority is the development of the undergraduate curriculum to address diversity competence. Even at institutions that have been at the forefront of diversity change, curricular change is still in its nascent phase. Consider, for example, the longstanding and bitter battle over a diversity requirement in the undergraduate curriculum at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). In the view of UCLA political science professor Thomas Schwartz, “Diversity is code for a certain set of politically correct or left leaning attitudes on college campuses. I don’t think students should be required to take an ideologically slanted or a politically slanted course.”

Nonetheless, as we share in this study, campuses that have successfully engaged in diversity curricular change have benefitted from the following approaches:

  • High-level executive support and sponsorship
  • Alignment with institutional mission and diversity leadership at all levels
  • Implementation of an effective assessment process such as diversity curricular mapping
  • Building faculty support within the larger colleges, such as the college of liberal arts
  • Creating faculty-led committees for collaborative work
  • Developing effective rubrics for gauging cultural or diversity competence
  • Supportive infrastructure such as faculty teaching and learning centers with tools and resources for curricular transformation
  • Connection to external stakeholders in terms of workforce development needs

A leading-edge example of how cultural competence is translated into concrete learning outcomes is the rubric developed by faculty at the University of Maryland as part of the general education requirement. This rubric was reviewed through faculty surveys and by focus groups and was finalized by a group of campus stakeholders. It focuses on the skills needed for negotiating cultural differences, enhancing cognitive awareness, fostering enhanced communication, and changing one’s mindset to achieve integrative understanding. 

Given the formative period of the undergraduate years, a cohesive and intentional approach to diversity competency will help prepare students to interact, work, and thrive in a global, diverse workforce. Take, for example, how Paul, a white male entrepreneur, describes his most powerful experience of diversity at a Midwestern research university and the subsequent impact on his career:

“For the sake of being honest—probably comprehending what white privilege is [was most significant]. Not that I could ever truly understand white privilege, but just that I know that it exists and I intentionally, consciously, and obviously unconsciously take advantage of it as often as possible. I suppose that I take solace knowing that if I can take advantage of the systems we have in place in our country to better and improve my own situation as much as possible at this stage in my life, then perhaps I will have the opportunity and power to help others down the road. Call me selfish and unjust if you want.” 

Our book shares concrete recommendations and best practices for strengthening diversity development in the curriculum and co-curriculum and for establishing learning outcomes that support diversity competence. Paul’s observations reinforce the urgent need for campus leadership to create an integrated campus ecosystem for diversity that allows students to explore their own perspectives and identities, understand systems of privilege, see beyond stereotypes and socially reinforced differences, and work collaboratively toward mutually reinforcing goals. 


Chessman, H. and L. Wayt. 2016. “What Are Students Demanding?” Higher Education Today American Council on Education. Retrieved from https://higheredtoday.org/2016/01/13/what-are-students-demanding/.

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 higher education practice leader for HigherEd Talent, a national HR and diversity consulting firm.


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