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Beyond a symbolic gesture: How to ensure your institution’s CDO can drive transformative change

December 18, 2020

Expert Insight

Beyond a symbolic gesture: How to ensure your institution’s CDO can drive transformative change

Illustration-URF-Blog-Illustration-3-1000x700 By EAB Expert September 19, 2022 0 minutes

Chief diversity officers (CDOs) are becoming increasingly common at colleges and universities in their efforts to advance institutional diversity and inclusion. From an EAB review of 58 institutions across the U.S., we found that 71 percent (41 institutions) currently employ a CDO. Of the remaining 17 institutions, four are actively searching for one.

Colleges and universities often create the CDO role as a response to racist incidents and tensions on campus; unwelcoming campus climate reported by students, faculty, and staff; and/or increased social activism by institutional constituents. With the well-documented, disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, highly publicized cases of police brutality against Black people, and mass protests for racial justice, 2020 has renewed the national dialogue on systemic racism in our institutions.

What’s a CDO?

Generally, chief diversity officers provide senior administrative leadership for the strategic planning and implementation of mission-driven diversity and inclusion efforts. CDOs sometimes hold different titles, such as vice president or vice chancellor, vice provost, or associate/assistant vice president.

2020 has sparked deeper introspection and highlighted the need for change among campus leaders. But just having a CDO won’t be enough to create meaningful change-institutions must ensure their CDO role is well thought-out, and that they empower the CDO  to build relationships and drive progress on initiatives.

Important anti-racist terms to know Read this EAB expert insight for definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion and the key differentiators between the terms.

The history of the CDO role traces back to the 1970s and ’80s

The modern day CDO role has its roots in the 1970s and 1980s when many colleges and universities established offices of multicultural affairs to support racial minority students as they were increasingly enrolling at predominantly white institutions.

The directors of these offices tended to be entry- or mid-level diversity administrators, reported to the Vice President for Student Affairs, and were typically asked to cover a broad range of responsibilities ranging from promoting awareness of diverse cultures on campus to creating affinity-based programming.

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However, despite increasing representation of racial minority students in higher ed, these students often did not feel safe and welcome on campus. Due to a subsequent decline in student retention rates and the rise of social media and tech use-which amplified publicity around racist campus crises-institutions started recruiting more diversity professionals. These evolving student and institutional needs have led to the creation of the CDO role, a senior-level administrative position with greater authority and an expanded scope.

To better understand modern CDO role in higher ed, we reviewed 58 CDO organizational charts, 20 CDO job descriptions from 2019 and 2020, and a recent report from the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE). Our sample of 58 institutions represents a relatively even spread of size, institution control, and geographic location. Below, we illuminate some emerging trends and initial recommendations to help ensure your CDO position goes beyond a symbolic and reactionary role.

5 considerations for how to structure the CDO role for success

1. Your CDO should report directly to the president/chancellor to maximize position visibility, access, and impact

Such a reporting structure symbolically reinforces a fundamental connection between diversity and institutional excellence. If the CDO sits on the cabinet, the CDO can provide an institution-wide perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that informs decision-making (e.g., budget allocation) at the highest leadership level.

There is not one right CDO organizational approach that will work at every institution. For example, a top-down CDO model may not align with an institution that has a highly decentralized culture. That said, when a CDO sits in the cabinet, they are more likely to receive executive buy-in and support for implementing their strategic vision. Of the reviewed 41 institutions that currently employ a CDO, over half of CDOs report to the president/chancellor.

2. Provide a strategic mentor for your CDO

Institutions should pair an incoming CDO with a strategic mentor who holds an influential, seasoned role at the institution. The mentor understands campus culture and existing political and power structures, facilitates access to cross-campus connections, and serves as a confidante and sounding board to the CDO.

Such a support structure helps the CDO build trust and credibility with cross-campus stakeholders and understand competing priorities in a politically charged environment.

3. Do not task your CDO with another administrative role

To ensure that the CDO can focus their time and energy on institutional DEI strategy, institutions should not confer another set of responsibilities to this individual. For example, at one institution in our sample, the CDO also served as a dean of students. This results in a portfolio that is too broad for one individual.

However, consider clarifying your CDO’s administrative authority through a dual title. Dual titling reinforces CDO’s administrative authority to campus constituents. From our sample, 14 institutions (34 percent) assign a second title to the CDO. Most commonly, the second title is interchangeable with “chief diversity officer”-such as “associate vice president for inclusive excellence” or “vice president for diversity and inclusion.” Here, dual titling clarifies the reporting line (rather than adding additional administrative responsibilities). For example, we can surmise that a CDO who is also a vice president for diversity and inclusion reports to the president.

4. Allocate at least one additional staff member to support your CDO’s work

By providing appropriate resources to the CDO (e.g., budget, staffing), institutions increase the CDO’s capacity to drive meaningful change.

78% of CDOs (32) have at least one additional staff member. Examples of staff member titles included an associate vice president of health equity, diversity, and inclusion; a dean of inclusive excellence; and a diversity and inclusion communications specialist.

CDO qualifications: your CDO must be a relational leader and change agent

From our analysis of CDO job postings, we found that institutions often seek candidates who have prior leadership experience in developing and implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives, experience working in higher ed, and an advanced degree. In addition, an effective CDO possesses a technical mastery of issues related to diversity and inclusion and expertise in change management.

Here are some examples of technical mastery of issues related to diversity and inclusion:

  • Knowledge of research, scholarship, and assessment practices related to DEI,
  • Understanding of national DEI trends and issues in higher ed,
  • Experience with complying with local, state, and federal laws related to Equal Employment Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and claims of discrimination and harassment in higher ed,
  • Ability to articulate the importance of campus diversity through the lenses of social justice, educational benefits, and business case,
  • Ability to facilitate, mediate, and train on issues of diversity and inclusion

Further, no CDO is tasked with maintaining status quo at an institution. To that end, your CDO needs to be an expert in change management. Below are four characteristics of an effective change agent:

Strategic Visionary

While it is important for CDOs to manage real-time responses to urgent campus crises, CDOs must also develop and promote a collaborative vision for diversity and inclusion and execute on long-term goals.

Relational Leader

CDOs possess emotional intelligence, charisma, and solid interpersonal skills. For example, CDOs are strong communicators. They build trust and credibility, and exercise diplomacy and discretion, in politically charged and sensitive situations.

Strong Collaborator

CDOs work with institutional leadership and cross-campus units to promote a holistic, shared vision of diversity and inclusion. To that end, CDOs need to excel in facilitating difficult conversations, managing conflict, and building consensus.

Data Storyteller

CDOs use quantitative and qualitative data to secure buy-in for overall diversity and inclusion strategy, inform decision-making, and communicate institutional progress towards goals. CDOs apply a metrics-driven approach to diversity and inclusion to develop systems of accountability.

CDO responsibilities: your CDO is more than a crisis manager

With strategic organizational placement, clear role definition, and strong support structures, CDOs are more likely to enact meaningful, lasting institutional change. The CDO’s portfolio of responsibilities falls into two categories below. Read on for a non-exhaustive list of sample responsibilities in each category.

Develop, lead, and assess implementation of the institution’s strategic plan for diversity and inclusion

  • Develops and promotes a clear and compelling vision for the institution’s strategic plan for diversity and inclusion,
  • Leads the development of campus policy and programming related to diversity and inclusion,
  • Develops and delivers training programs for faculty, staff, and students on topics such as cultural competency, gender differences, and sexual harassment,
  • Elevates the institution’s diversity and inclusion efforts through communication and marketing strategies for internal and external constituents,
  • Develops and monitors metrics to track institution-wide progress towards diversity and inclusion goals,
  • Oversees related executive committees and campus offices/centers dedicated to diversity and inclusion.

Work with institutional leadership and cross-campus units to implement an integrated vision for diversity

  • Works with different units to implement best practices related to diversity and inclusion, such as:
    • Recruiting and retaining diverse faculty and staff,
    • Enrolling a diverse student body and improving the success of students from minority groups,
    • Diversifying curricular content and co-curricular activities.
  • Ensures compliance with federal, state, and local laws, such as Affirmative Action, Equal Employment Opportunity, and Title IX,
  • Ensures appropriate institutional response to on-campus bias incidents,
  • Oversees investigations of discrimination, harassment, assault, and other complaints that involve faculty, students, and staff.

Quick related reads

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