What Is a Chief Diversity Officer?

Damon A. Williams and Katrina C. Wade-Golden, InsideHigherEd, April 18, 2006

To meet the needs of increasingly diverse campuses, many institutions have developed executive positions to guide their diversity agendas. In many instances, these individuals and their units are the “face” of diversity efforts and carry formal administrative titles like vice provost, vice chancellor, associate provost, vice president, assistant provost, dean, or special assistant to the president for multicultural, international, equity, diversity, and inclusion—to cite only a few of the most frequently used titles.

Yet despite so many different monikers, if you ask most officers what they do, they often respond in a remarkably similar manner, noting that they are the institution’s “chief diversity officer” (or CDO, as many say), using the title more commonly found among their counterparts in the corporate world. We’ve just finished a national study of these positions: why these roles are emerging, their main characteristics, and the key knowledge, skills, and abilities that institutions should seek when searching for a new officer.

In the last five years, no fewer than 30 institutions have created these new roles. A review of recent higher education job listings illustrates the scope of this phenomenon, as institutions moving towards the CDO are swelling in number and differ by type, control, size, and geographic location. Institutions like the Berklee College of Music, Oklahoma State University, Harvard University, Xavier University, Miami University, Marquette University, Washington State University, and the University of Virginia, have recently hired inaugural officers. These roles have been constructed in an effort to build diversity capabilities similar to those found at institutions like the University of Michigan, University of Connecticut, Indiana University, the University of Washington, Brown University, the University of Denver, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, to name a few of the places that have had these positions for some time.

The emergence of these offices in higher education is not without historical precedence, as some institutions had “vice president for minority affairs” roles in the 1970s, when the first large group of African Americans enrolled at what were nearly all-white colleges and universities. These early units were often criticized as a symbolic appeasement to protesting minority groups and others demanding infrastructure for newly admitted minority populations and campus change.

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The most influential of these officers is also distinguished by ability to infuse diversity into the most important academic issues of the institution. For example, the chief diversity officer may collaborate with the academic senate to develop a general education diversity distribution requirement; lead international negotiations for establishing a sister campus in Dubai; or develop incentives to develop new programs and initiatives that infuse diversity into the curriculum and co-curriculum. These types of initiatives are distinct from the traditional responsibilities of affirmative action officers, although chief diversity officers may play a key role in resolving sexual harassment and workplace discrimination complaints, or supervising the unit that performs this function.

Where others work on issues of diversity as a matter of second or third priority, chief diversity officers engage matters of diversity as a matter of first-priority. Although the structures and vertical portfolios of the CDO range from basic one-person offices, to more complex multi-unit configurations, a number of threads define this emerging administrative role in higher education.

A Functional Approach: Chief diversity officers have responsibility for guiding efforts to conceptualize, define, assess, nurture, and cultivate diversity as an institutional and educational resource. Although duties may include affirmative action/equal employment opportunity, or the constituent needs of minorities, women, and other bounded social identity groups, chief diversity officers define their mission as providing point and coordinating leadership for diversity issues institution-wide.

Building a robust chief diversity officer capability insures that the institution has expertise on diversity related matters and infusing this understanding throughout the campus environment. For instance, at the University of Connecticut, the Office of the Vice Provost for Multicultural & International Affairs leads the execution of a five-year board-sponsored strategic plan for diversity and provides key input and leadership to several committees focused on minority faculty mentoring, undergraduate student retention, and increasing the number of historically underrepresented students of color and women studying in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics areas. Moreover, members of the office’s senior leadership team participate in many of the most substantive non-diversity centered committees at the university, ranging from information technology usage, to space allocations, to athletics.

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Damon A. Williams is assistant vice provost for multicultural and international affairs at the University of Connecticut. Katrina C. Wade-Golden is a senior research specialist in the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives at the University of Michigan. They are co-principal investigators for the “Senior Diversity Officer Study in Higher Education.”

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