The current COVID-19 health pandemic has exposed the weaknesses and strengths of higher education institutions. Colleges and universities made a massive shift from traditional teaching formats to fully virtual ones on a moment’s notice. In doing so, they’ve revealed the resolve and creativity of educators who have given new life to lesson plans and learning outcomes through technology.
But the current challenges should also remind us of the importance of access, equity and cultural competence in education. In fact, institutions should continue to be mindful of how cultural competence plays a role in every area of their business operations, ranging from student development to even pandemic preparation. Colleges and universities should not only focus on academic success for students but also ensure those students have a cultural competence skill set.
People cite various definitions for cultural competence, but the basic one is the ability to communicate, interact and understand people from different cultures and/or identities. No matter what employment industry a student chooses, they will inevitably encounter diversity. But how they respond or interact with that diversity will demonstrate whether or not they were exposed to inclusive engagement practices.
Teaching a cultural competence skill set should not be viewed as supporting one group or attacking another, but rather as a collaborative effort to produce students who can inspire, innovate and leverage differences in society for the greater good. I had the joy of serving as the first diversity director at a major college of business. I have since transitioned to another academic role and discovered the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work across higher education.
Diversity has been championed in colleges and universities around the country, but some business schools have been making distinct efforts. One of the questions I was often asked as diversity director at my college was “Is it good for business?” And the answer was, and remains, yes. Programs or initiatives to help make our students more culturally competent are a must as we prepare future leaders to enter the workforce. Working with the diversity committee, faculty members, administrators and student leaders, we were able to capitalize on talent and build a program that celebrated a diversity of people, programs and ideas. The return on investment for producing culturally competent graduates? Higher starting salaries for students, increased corporate funding and, most important, students who can interact successfully with all types of people.
Based on my experience, I offer five tips which might prove useful for institutions to improve their diversity, equity and inclusion work -- the areas we championed and which might prove useful in other areas of the institution.
Intentional effort. At my business school, we intentionally recruited students from diverse backgrounds -- not only students of color but also those from different academic backgrounds and geographic locations. Keep in mind that while we in higher ed often admit students in good measure based on their academic background, it is their academic potential that can provide the biggest return if they are given access to an opportunity.
Retention is connected to relationship, so as we recruited a diverse student body, we also sought to create relationships with each of those students. Minority students often find strength in community, so we created such a community for students and provided them with real support: financial support in the form of cash scholarships that supplemented their other financial aid, academic support through personal one-on-one tutoring for any business course and community support through the creation of a specific office of diversity and inclusion where students could study, relax and simply be themselves.
Intentional inclusivity. It’s not good to recruit and retain diverse students and then not have a faculty that is engaged in the process of cultural competence. A committed focus on curriculum that is inclusive is vital, as well. If faculty members understand the value of culturally competent teaching, it will also enhance the classroom experience. For example, our faculty members who employed culturally competent teaching worked to learn how to pronounce international students' names correctly and made sure that classroom assignments had inclusive language, among many other things. These culturally competent teaching practices, while relatively simple, led to an inclusive classroom and higher engagement from students.
Mentoring and creating a supportive community. Opportunities for faculty members to mentor students and build true relationships are vital, as well. In our case, some minority students developed academic relationships with faculty members who gave them opportunities to visit personally with alumni who had become corporate executives. While that type of practice occurs regularly at many colleges, it sometimes only happens with the best and brightest, or the most mainstream, students. We should seek to develop opportunities for minority and underrepresented students to engage and be a part of the extracurricular activities that often lead to the internships or job offers. If minority students do not get access to the people who are connected to others in various industries, then by default they do not get access to the best employment opportunities.
Community outreach and development. My college of business occasionally offered tax help, business plan assistance and entrepreneurial services to our greater community. As a result, minority entrepreneurs who did not attend business school but had thriving businesses were able to benefit from the research and strategies we provided. Such outreach to the community allows for underrepresented populations to gain access to concepts that can help uplift their community. Those efforts resulted in students being hired for internships or other employment positions with minority-owned businesses. Additionally, it created mentoring relationships for the students, providing them someone with whom they could talk about their business experiences.
Corporate connections. Corporate business partners come to campuses every semester to recruit business students to work for them, and they are looking for the top students. As society continues to diversify, so does the need to have business employees that look like the communities they serve. Rather than investing millions in training and development, corporate partners are investing while students are in degree programs because they can get an immediate return on that investment when they hire a culturally competent graduate. Funding for DEI is lucrative because it creates a high yield for the institution, the corporate partner and, most important, the student. In our case, corporate partner funding proved to be a key plus when resources were limited across our institution. Corporate partners can provide the capital for scholarships and programming and, at the same time, the institution can produce an employee who has an inclusive leadership skill set.
Many business schools are employing diversity, equity and inclusion strategies and redefining business education to include that work. Other disciplines and institutions at large should take heed and realize that it is beneficial to embrace such strategies. Not all of them are successful, and quite frankly, some fail. But at least, a focus on cultural competence is a part of the educational experience for students. And when people ask the question “Is it good for business?” I would argue that, yes, it is good for business -- and even better for colleges and their students.