Role of Chief Diversity Officers Expanding on College Campuses - Higher Education
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Role of Chief Diversity Officers Expanding on College Campuses

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by Oliver B. Tomlin III


Thankfully, after many years, the chief diversity officer (CDO) position is getting its due on college campuses. Institutions have come to realize just how critical a CDO is to getting things done regarding diversity and inclusion as well as to legitimizing these efforts in the eyes of constituents.

Oliver B. Tomlin III

Oliver B. Tomlin III

That’s the good news. It is to the point, however, that the roles of most chief diversity officers have ballooned. Responsibilities include, at one end of the spectrum, recruiting and retention of students, staff, faculty, and leadership. This is the more transactional part of the job, about increasing the numbers of underrepresented individuals within the institution and ensuring a pipeline for the future.

At the other end of the spectrum is the more amorphous but critical charge to change and shape the institution’s culture, climate and reputation. Are we a fair and inclusive institution? Does our culture provide us with a competitive advantage within the increasingly fractured education marketplace of today? In the middle of things the CDO has the more operational D&I, or diversity and inclusion, matters: there are trainings to conduct, workshops to host, conferences to attend.

Further, being a CDO is akin to being a president in that every constituent group — from students to faculty to alumni to community leaders — falls within your purview. There is a lot to do. The plates of most chief diversity officers I know are full.

Creating an environment for success

When confronted with an enormous scope of responsibilities, CDOs that I know will usually take a deep breath and say, “Whose bread do I butter first?” They look for ways to prioritize and streamline their jobs in order to be most effective. They understand this comes with the territory.

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Campus leadership, beginning with the president, bears responsibility for creating an environment within which the CDO can thrive without having to do everything. Here are things the president and cabinet must do before recruiting a new CDO, or to support one who is already in place.

  1. Prioritize.

What is reasonable for the CDO to accomplish? Where are the burning platforms? Who can attend to them? Answers to these questions will guide the CDO’s work and allow him/her to prioritize as well.

  1. Align the CDO’s responsibilities with the diversity & inclusion strategic plan.

A few fundamental questions to consider are:

  • What are the institution’s goals for diversity and inclusion?
  • Who is responsible for them?
  • What is the timeline for achieving them?
  • How will success be measured? If spelled out in the D&I strategic plan the answers can also guide the CDO’s tasks.
  1. Clarify the reporting structure.

The ideal place for the CDO’s office to reside is near the president’s, especially if culture change is part of the mandate. Some CDOs won’t look at a role unless it is reporting to the president. Oftentimes the role reports to the provost because the D&I agenda is on the academic side (i.e., curricular refinement, faculty development, etc.). Some institutions are experimenting with a hybrid model where day-to-day reporting is to the provost but the CDO is considered part of the president’s senior leadership team.

  1. Pledge support.

The president and senior administrators need to be on board with D&I for the CDO to succeed — to give initiatives their full commitment. It’s an added plus if the board is behind them. In addition, there has to be a certain level of support and buy-in from the staff and community.

  1. Garner the resources.
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This dovetails with the pledge of support. There has to be a commitment as to what resources will be made available for diversity and inclusion objectives. Whichever deans and administrators have budgetary ties to D&I initiatives are more likely to help them succeed. People need to put their (and their units’ money) where their mouths are.

  1. Don’t look for a messiah.

The CDO cannot fix the campus or undo years of ingrained patterns and policies. It is not this individual’s sole responsibility to be the D&I champion on campus, to fi x things, to smooth over campus controversies, to make everyone happy. Everyone must play a role in diversity and inclusion.

Other administrators must see the CDO as a consultant, adviser, sounding board, partner and resource. It is not the CDO’s responsibility to engineer change and manage projects. This is the charge of administrators who must utilize the expertise of the CDO to achieve their individual and unit objectives.

This last item is, in my mind, the most critical. Too often the recruitment of a chief diversity officer is seen as an opportunity for others to relinquish duties. This is not the way it should be. CDOs are often given the mandate for change but not the muscle. They don’t have the ability to lead through edict; the position requires persuasion, communication and a finessed type of leadership. The responsibility for change regarding diversity and inclusion on a campus ultimately lies outside of the CDO position.

Oliver B. Tomlin III is a senior partner in the education and health care practices of the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. He supports the recruitment of chief diversity officers as well as many other senior-level executive roles.

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