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Do Colleges Need a Chief Diversity Officer?

When strategically and purposely positioned, funded and supported, such senior administrators can play a vital role in higher education institutions today, writes Eugene T. Parker III.

August 20, 2020
 
 
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Do higher education institutions need a chief diversity officer? The short answer is yes, but it requires a more complete explanation.

During the last five years, appointments of chief diversity officers at colleges and universities have grown significantly. A review of job announcements reveals many listings from institutions that are seeking their first chief diversity officer. The chief, or senior, diversity officer is increasingly becoming a highly sought-after and indispensable administrative leader.

Often the chief diversity officer is inaugurated in response to an institutional crisis associated with racial incidents on campus; perceptions by students, faculty and staff of unwelcoming college environments; or increased and visible social activism and mobilization by institutional members. To some people, the appointment of a chief diversity officer is mostly a symbolic undertaking, while to others, the appointment of the CDO demonstrates intentional action toward organizational and transformational change at the institution. There is little consistency across higher education regarding how the office and role is structured, perceived and fulfilled.

During the 1970s and '80s, colleges and universities experienced increased enrollments of racial minority students -- mainly African American. At many institutions, the idea of diversity was limited compositional diversity, whereby leadership largely sought to increase the relative numbers of people of color on campus. Based on those enrollment trends and coupled with civil rights activism and other social movements, colleges and universities established offices to support racial minority students, such as offices of minority affairs, multicultural affairs and cultural centers. The directors and leaders of those offices were entry- or midlevel diversity administrators and an antecedent to present-day chief diversity officers.

But while the representation of racial minority students grew, it became clear that many students were unhappy. Students were being recruited by and admitted to colleges but found their environments to be unwelcoming, chilly and unsafe. As students felt less welcome, retention rates declined. Increased usage of social media and technology led to greater publicity around racist and bigoted campus crises.

As a result, institutions began to appoint more diversity professionals. And as those professionals’ responsibilities increased, so did the reach of their portfolios and jurisdiction. During the last few decades, institutions began to elevate diversity professionals to senior-level positions to align with those changing and emerging responsibilities.

Some higher education observers have progressively questioned and even criticized the term “chief” in chief diversity officer, insisting that it should be the responsibility of every institutional leader to establish and maintain a campus culture that values diversity, equity and inclusion, not solely the purview of the CDO. They have also highlighted the cultural insensitivity that is associated with the term. Thus, many diversity professionals have advocated the use of “senior diversity officer” as a more appropriate term. Nonetheless, “chief diversity officer” continues to be the predominant and wide-ranging designation.

While a commitment to diversity should, in fact, be everyone’s responsibility, scholars assert that institutions of higher education must appoint a single senior-level administrator who is charged with enacting institutional change toward a more diverse and welcoming campus. The specific role of that person is to motivate and galvanize the institutional community toward shared diversity-centered goals and missions. A senior leader who is tasked with helping the institution achieve those goals and adhere to the mission is essential.

The discourse about the importance, roles and responsibilities of a chief diversity officer on campuses is not without criticism. Scholars have focused on perceptions by many people that the appointment of a CDO is primarily a reactionary and symbolic nod to addressing diversity issues. However, this perspective ignores the full extent and complex roles that these administrative leaders can fulfill when the institution is sincere in improving the diversity climate.

Conversely, scholars have focused on the potential for these diversity leaders to develop sustainable diversity-centered initiatives, construct culturally engaging programs and build effectual relationships that encourage institutional change. Diversity offices have historically been unsystematically structured without sufficient attention to and assessment of the particular cultural and social contexts of the specific college campus. However, many people would agree that when strategically and purposely structured, funded and supported, diversity offices play a vital role in present-day higher education institutions.

For the chief diversity officer to enact real change, there must be an appropriate organizational placement of that officer, coupled with adequate authority and vertical and horizontal power. It is well documented that the chief diversity officer must be at the senior level with an associated executive job title. That is, the CDO must be in the C-suite. The chief diversity officer ought to sit at the president’s table. While CDOs who are organizationally positioned under the provost or chief academic officer are common, the CDO must have access to the president. The high-ranking job title, at the very least, indicates to internal and external stakeholders the authority and control that is necessary for CDOs to be efficacious leaders.

Given all this, and inspired by the work of Damon Williams, I would make the following arguments for the value -- indeed, the necessity -- for a chief diversity officer at most colleges and universities. Such an individual will be:

A knowledge expert. As with mission statements or strategic plans, colleges and universities often rely on statements and documents to communicate their commitment to diversity to the external community. The diversity leader is, in some ways, the embodiment of diversity. But that person should not be simply a symbolic representation of an institution’s sudden or renewed commitment to diversity. They must possess the knowledge and expertise (legal, regulatory, compliance, Title IX, etc.), as well as skill set (cognitive, interpersonal, communication, leadership, etc.), to appropriately advance the institution’s shared diversity goals. Further, the CDO can help to create a shared understanding of the many terms associated with diversity -- terms that are often misused and misunderstood, such as "equity," "inclusion," "multiculturalism," "inclusive excellence," "minority," "minoritized" and the like.

More than a crisis manager. Recent appointments of chief diversity officers are often the result of campus crises centering on racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism and all other -isms that adversely affect diverse members of the institutional community. Many campus leaders often consider the CDO to be the go-to person for all matters associated with diversity -- the diversity savior -- including all diversity-centered events, programs and crises.

But the notion of the chief diversity officer as mainly a crisis manager must be debunked. This deficit perspective minimizes the numerous beneficial programs that are often under the purview of the chief diversity officer. They include programs for diverse and underserved students; those that promote college success, such as college transition and early intervention; cultural programs and trainings; and funding for diversity-related student groups, units and departments.

A relational leader. Relational leadership is essential to the role and value of the chief diversity officer. CDOs must build and maintain effective relationships with internal and external stakeholders, including but not limited to students, faculty, staff, governing boards, alumni, community members and local, state and federal leaders. A college or university may have an historical legacy of marginalization and exclusion, leading to mistrust among diverse students, faculty, staff and alumni. While CDOs cannot, in a short time frame, erase hundreds of years of institutional exclusion and systemic racism, they can surely help to build and mend trust in institutional members.

A collaborator. The chief diversity officer collaborates with intra-institutional members, units and departments to further diversity goals. CDOs direct programs that bring varying institutional members together. For instance, CDOs may collaborate with the alumni association to effectively engage with diverse alumni or consult and take part in important conversations about faculty searches. The collaborative aspect of the role enables the CDO to build valuable cross-campus relationships, facilitate difficult dialogues and promote essential interactions among people.

A leader of diversity champions. More than an advocate, the chief diversity officer is the primary champion for substantive and authentic institutional change. They ensure that the college or university is affirming for all institutional members and can help to center the diversity narrative. As mentioned, CDOs should not be the sole diversity champions on college campuses, but they are the leaders of diversity champions.

As the nation as a whole and college campuses continue to face social, cultural and political environmental forces regarding race, diversity is a critical matter for higher education. The chief diversity office (and officer) is quite simply an essential institution at colleges and universities that sincerely strive to maintain culturally welcoming college campuses through promoting and valuing diversity.

Bio

Eugene T. Parker III is assistant professor in the School of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Kansas.

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