Thursday, June 09, 2005

A competent working group, saying nothing 

University Diaries discusses the cultural competency debate at the University of Oregon.

[University President Dave] Frohnmayer �is in the process of appointing an executive working group of eight to ten people to conduct [a] review this summer.� �... The working group will review the draft�the draft which was, dammit, just a draft, as Frohnmayer keeps saying in the article: �What is it you [critics of the plan] don't understand about the word 'draft?��

Nothing! I understand the word �draft.� But if your institution has produced a draft document that in its extremism has become a national scandal, maybe instead of appointing a committee to review the draft, which will merely delay diversity efforts (�Appointing the executive working group to review the plan and recommend changes will slow the process, Frohnmayer said, but given the response to the original draft he said it's clear that more time is needed.�) you could do what people often do with bad drafts. You could throw it away.

But you seldom see universities do this. Bad ideas are simply left around because too many people have a stake in getting it passed. Anytime resistance to these things is given, the reaction is to deflect, to refer to a committee ... but never to walk away and say it was a bad draft or a bad idea. Egos won't allow this. And you can see this in how Frohnmayer continues to beat the dead horse.
Frohnmayer likes the language of the draft, however, especially the phrase that got everybody so angry, �cultural competency�:

Cultural competency, Frohnmayer said, is a straightforward concept. "To me it means that we are able to effectively reach all of the students who have demonstrated their competence to be in the university but for whom, because of cultural background, traditional techniques of teaching may not be as effective as others," he said. "A good teacher is always open, I hope, to ways to increase teaching effectiveness."

Does this seem weird to you? If it�s a straightforward concept, why does Frohnmayer talk about it in a circuitous way? For instance, I thought �cultural competence� referred to professors, who would, under this plan, be tested on their cultural competence before being promoted. Yet as Frohnmayer now defines it, cultural competency seems to refer to the difficulty some students may have being competent in the traditional classroom.
Increasing teaching effectiveness is not a free good. It faces competing claims -- it has an opportunity cost. Increasing performance in two students at the expense of retarding the learning of twenty others, or by decreasing the amount of knowledge creation a faculty member might do, implies a value statement that favors one group's learning over another's. That may be what is desired by educators such as Frohnmayer, but at a public institution you would never say such a thing openly.