New Report Trains a Spotlight On Chief Diversity Officers - Higher Education
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New Report Trains a Spotlight On Chief Diversity Officers

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim


First-time chief diversity officers should seek clarity of purpose, anticipate major change, avoid thinking of themselves as a “messiah” and be prepared to be regarded as “the diversity expert.”

Those kernels of knowledge are contained in a new survey report on CDOs that seeks to provide practical advice for newcomers to the profession.

Khalilah Lawson — author of the report, released Tuesday and titled “The Critical First Year: What New Chief Diversity Officers Need to Succeed” — said it seeks to give newly appointed CDOs a realistic sense of what to expect based on the lived experience of other CDOs.

“So many of these positions are inaugural roles,” explained Lawson, senior associate at Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm that finds talent for institutions of higher education, among other organizations.

“I was interested in getting a better understanding of what individuals thought the first year would feel like in the beginning, and then what it would realistically look like toward, say, the 366th day,” Lawson said in an interview with Diverse.

The report takes stock of how CDOs view their positions and the extent to which they believe they are supported by the administrations and institutions for which they work.

While the report maintains that CDOs are “well positioned to make an impact,” other elements of the report throw that assertion into question.

For instance, when asked if they had enough time to “acclimate and begin to implement the responsibilities” of their roles, 27 percent answered no.

Perhaps more disturbingly, 53 percent disagreed that they had been given “adequate resources” to perform their responsibilities, although the report does not specify what resources may have been lacking.

  University of Wyoming to Hire Diversity Officer

The new CDO survey comes at a critical time for CDOs in higher education, as racial incidents, protests and complaints about lack of student and faculty diversity continue to beleaguer colleges and universities throughout the country.

Protests at Berkeley this past spring that prompted President Donald J. Trump to Tweet a threat to withhold federal money; and a chilly student rebuke of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, as commencement speaker at HBCU Bethune-Cookman University were among the recent incidents.

In the wake of the murder of a student on its campus that was believed to be racially motivated, the University of Maryland hired a CDO as part of its efforts to “create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for all.”

The new survey is also one of several recent attempts to delineate the job at a time when some question the essentiality of CDOs — especially at a time when many institutions are beset by budget austerity.

In some ways, the survey echoes a 2016 survey of CDOs by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, or NADOHE. The NADOHE survey found that about three-fourths of the respondents were considered part of the executive/administrative staff within their institutions.

In the new Witt/Kieffer survey, 40 percent indicated they have a “direct line to the top” — that is, they report to the president, chancellor, or CEO, and another 21 percent indicated that they report to the provost. Nearly one-third of respondents report to others, mostly general counsel, deans, and vice deans or deputy provosts, the survey states.

The survey is based on responses from 81 chief diversity officers or diversity leaders in higher education, healthcare and academic medicine. About half of the responding CDOs in higher education work at public universities and the other half are at private colleges or universities, the survey states. Of the remaining respondents, 14 percent work at hospitals or health systems, and 10 percent work at academic medical centers or medical schools.

  NADOHE Survey: Diversity Officers Increasingly on Executive Level

Encouragingly, 86 percent reported they “had the support of the president/CEO and administration to fulfill” their charges. And 72 percent indicated they had “buy-in from broad constituents.”

But being a CDO — especially during the first year — won’t be all smooth sailing. Sometimes, that’s because of who’s at the helm of the ship.

For instance, when asked, “What is the greatest challenge facing a CDO in the first year?” several responses were directed at leadership.

The challenges included “knowing what the president and provost will actually support and where their values are,” and dealing with CEOs who believe they can “delegate the responsibility and not be involved.”

Others pointed to lack of diversity and inclusion at the executive level.

“When the executive team lacks diversity, it can be hard to help others at that level understand the strategic need for D&I—even with support from the CEO,” the report states.

The report concludes that a CDO’s success is “dependent upon the conditions in place at the institution and the expectations that leadership and constituents have for what is to be accomplished.”

“CDOs are at the vanguard of cultural change, which isn’t an easy role to fill,” the report concludes. “They are human, not miracle-workers; there is no set portfolio to suit the task at hand, and no two institutions share the same degrees of readiness and willingness.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at jabdul-alim@diverseeducation.com or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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