The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Cultural competency discussed

Katie Perry | Wednesday, December 7, 2005

A proposal to establish a committee to evaluate and implement cultural competency at the Notre Dame was hotly debated at Tuesday’s Faculty Senate meeting, where members said the plan was too “vague” and last-minute for them to make an immediate decision.

Members of the Student Affairs committee, one of the four subcommittees of Faculty Senate, cited the resolution’s inability to present a clear-cut definition of the term “cultural competency” – and how such a practice would be integrated – as well as a lack of time to think over the issue as reasons for postponing action until their next meeting on Feb. 1.

Rhea Boyd, chair of Student Senate’s Minority Affairs committee, said the resolution speaks to Notre Dame’s “biggest initiative” – the question of how to incorporate diversity into campus life. Boyd said the issue is best resolved by making exposure a direct part of the college curriculum.

“The biggest thing is the definition of cultural competency,” Boyd said. “As defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, ‘competence’ is a specific range of skill, knowledge and ability. When we precede that with ‘cultural,’ we hope Notre Dame students will have a knowledge or ability to successfully navigate through cultural experiences or comprehend different cultural people.”

Some faculty members expressed concern with the ambiguity of the term, but Boyd said the word “cultural” is meant to be a bit vague – “that’s an issue.”

“[The Minority Affairs committee] does not have the authority or jurisdiction to define what ‘cultural’ should be,” she said. “We want to leave it up to this [proposed] committee to determine what it should be.”

History professor Gail Bederman said adversity faced when attempting to define such a term transcends the Notre Dame community.

“American academics as a whole has been debating this ‘what do you call this’ – diversity, culture … It seems like we’re chastising the committee for dealing with something that has been [debated] in many universities,” she said.

Marketing professor John Gaski said the term’s vagueness leads to “a lot of assuming.”

“What if the Notre Dame student body is the most culturally competent student body in the country?” he asked. “Isn’t there some kind of measure? Maybe we’ll find out we’re in the 99th percentile – shouldn’t that be investigated?”

But members said it would be difficult – if not impossible – to measure how culturally competent Notre Dame students are currently, and how culturally competent they would presumably be after the proposed institutional improvements were implemented.

East Asian languages and literatures professor Xiaoshan Yang said from personal experience, “the majority of Notre Dame students do not have a lot of cultural exposure.”

“If they go abroad, they go Dublin, they go to London, they go to Australia,” he said. “My gut feeling is yes, our students are less exposed.”

Student activities committee chair and physics professor Phillipe Collon said the term cultural competency can be “wide,” and therefore difficult to measure.

“If I compare our students to those students who run around at Berkeley, I’d say yes, we are a more homogenous group,” he said. “[But] a metric is impossible when we don’t say what we mean by it.”

Boyd said questions about the measurability of a cultural competency requirement have been considered by the Minority Affairs committee.

“We really don’t have the authority to [determine] how to evaluate cultural competency,” she said. “We are looking for something every student has to take … [but] at this point we are not advocating a requirement. We’re looking to see how the committee thinks it can be done.”

Boyd said the Minority Affairs committee is seeking the help of outside sources – like Faculty Senate – to establish a committee that would assess the feasibility of adding another course to the curriculum and other institutional changes.

“At this point we really just want to centralize conversations and realize a concrete way [to do this],” she said. “The Minority Affairs committee feels that what would be best is something formal – students should take it seriously.”

Members said added requirements might hamper students who already bear heavy course loads, but Rhea offered the possibility of a “double requirement” that would tie in cultural competency credit with other University or college requirements.

Student body president Dave Baron said the minority affairs committee members identified “50 or so” classes they thought might count in the requirement – but weren’t certain on the feasibility.

“I’d like to be a fly on the wall of the committee who’s going to determine [what counts],” Gaski said.

Boyd said the “biggest thing” the Minority Affairs committee identified is that every Notre Dame student should in some way be exposed to other cultures.

“If you don’t make it available to every student, it’s very possible for students to surround themselves in classes and with people very much like their own background,” she said.

Bederman said Notre Dame’s status as a Catholic university is simultaneously a strength and a weakness.

“Our mission as a Catholic university encourages our students to be American, Catholic – and that’s great – but it also limits the number of folks here,” she said. “As a less racially and religiously diverse [institution], it wouldn’t kill us to have a requirement [like this].”

Vice President and Associate Provost Jean Ann Linney said one of the problems is that people are “dancing around the issue.”

“Are we going to address this or are we going to back way from it? We need students and faculty groups to engage together,” she said. “In [University President Father John Jenkins’] inaugural address, he said diversity is part of our Catholicity – and we need to talk about it more seriously, think about it more and address it more seriously.”