Creating a Campus Culture of Competence


No. 8, January 2018, Global Studies Literature Review

At the heart of Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education: An Ecological Framework for Student Development (2016) is the notion of using ecology to help describe the key interactions that happen throughout parts of the college infrastructure. In using this academic subject and, more pointedly, examining the science of how individual parts relate to their broader environment, Chun and Evans help to bring life to an important and evolving topic.

The book offers research, best practices, and strategies for connecting the disparate parts of the college ecosystem to build cultural competence across campus. This holistic approach to building cultural competence, along with the authors’ diligence in laying out a new paradigm for this competence, makes this volume an important contribution to the fields of intercultural relations, diversity, and inclusion studies.

In contrast to the established definition of “cultural competence,” which Chun and Evans characterize as being concerned with fixed concepts, the new definition portrays culture and cultural competence as more fluid concepts. For example, the authors argue that social scientists tend to paint members of the same culture with the same broad stroke, failing to acknowledge individual uniqueness. Additionally, the authors present a new perspective on cultural identity that takes into account the interrelations they argue must be considered. This new look on cultural identity includes considering how multiple cultural characteristics (such as gender identity and religion) help to build an identity, as well as examining the role that external factors like power and politics play in the “relationship between the individual and his/her environment, including the larger social forces of discrimination, racism, and oppression” (Chun and Evans 2016, 42).

Adoption of this broader definition of “cultural competence” leads the practitioner to the next step: applying it to greater understanding of culture on our campuses. To achieve cultural competence, the authors suggest that the student must be acknowledged as the center of the academic ecosystem and that efforts to inspire tangible gains in cultural competence must make deliberate investments across the campus environment. For example, the authors share the perspective of a gay white campus administrator who witnessed well-intentioned individual responses to culturally insensitive behaviors like a racial slur or homophobic comment. This administrator saw a lack of an “integrated ecosystem” that would lead to a comprehensive approach to understanding culture through the curriculum; classroom learning activities; relationships among faculty, staff, and students; athletics; and residence life, to name a few of the organizational pieces of the college ecosystem.

Several themes emerge as the book strives to blend theory and practice, including:

  • The broadest possible definition of “diversity competence” is recommended, beginning with government-protected status (e.g., race/ethnicity and age) but encompassing broader experiences like socioeconomic status. As an example, the authors include the disillusioned perspective of a student who joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at an institution that the student perceived did not fully support student identification with the campus military program.
  • Cultural competence tends to focus on how nonminority cultures understand communities of color, rather than the self-identities of multicultural students. The authors purport that this emphasis can diminish the role of the minority student, particularly those who are navigating mostly white campuses. In describing the benefits of self-identity, the book includes the experience of an African American student whose study of the social justice realities of diversity in a cross-cultural psychology course helped her to understand “what diversity meant to her but also what it meant to her future aspirations and goals” (Chun and Evans 2016, 116).
  • Little progress has been made in reducing inequality and increasing understanding on campuses. Interviews with campus voices included in the book help to bring this perspective to life. For example, an African American professor shares his view that the desire to improve cultural competency has grown beyond the goal of achieving more diversity, but that “we are still at a place where we have no idea what that means” (Chun and Evans 2016, 32).

Additionally, the book presents a handful of models to use in implementing a holistic approach to building campus cultural competence. One, adapted from the Indiana University’s Culturally Engaging Campus Environment (CECE) college success initiative, includes a focus on the following competence components:

  • build effective interaction among students, faculty, and staff;
  • engage diverse cultures with positive purpose;
  • sustain and increase cultural knowledge;
  • transform cultural communities through service;
  • support cultural diversity across the institution (Chun and Evans 2016, pp. 60–61).

The primary importance of the book is its breadth and detail, particularly given its extensive review of the literature and collection of insights representing the diversity of the academy. Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education culminates with numerous practical strategies that can be used to implement or revise campus cultural competence efforts. Readers should be diligent in combing through the examples and strategies to find those that could best be adopted at their institutions. Those of us in all corners of global programming, from study abroad to inclusive excellence, are likely to find a relevant suggestion that will help our work in contributing meaningfully to campus efforts to cultivate cultural understanding.

Chun, Edna, and Alvin Evans. 2016. Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education: An Ecological Framework for Student Development 42, 4. ASHE Higher Education Report. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Periodicals.