Posted on September 10, 2018

Do Chief Diversity Officers Help Diversify a University’s Faculty? This Study Found No Evidence

Claire Hansen, Chronicle of Higher Education, September 6, 2018


That got West [James E. West], an economics professor, thinking: What influence does an executive-level diversity position have on faculty demographics? West, whose work focuses on higher education, and three Baylor colleagues tried to find out.


The authors were unable to find any statistically significant increase in faculty diversity after the creation of a chief-diversity-officer position. {snip}

West spoke to The Chronicle about the study, its limitations, and what the findings might mean for universities chasing a more representative faculty. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. The first several pages of the study mention that faculty diversity is complex. Why look into this?

A. There wasn’t much research. But in the stuff that I did find, advocates for diversity officers do list faculty diversity as a major component. {snip} And one of the strategies, several of the papers argued, was that having a higher-profile executive-level position would dramatically address that.

Q. What did you find?

A. We weren’t able to find evidence that any pre-existing trends changed. The one significant result is actually not very nice: At institutions with a CDO in place, we found that diversity of tenured faculty hired fell.


Q. Do your findings make a case for hiring a CDO, or not hiring a CDO, or neither?

A. We tried to be very careful. Statistically speaking, all we can really say is we were unable to find a result. {snip}

As we discussed our results, we saw how in universities hiring decisions are generally made at the departmental level. Cabinet-level administrators have little to no direct effect over departments’ decisions because of academic autonomy.

But I could see how a diversity officer – if they set a positive tone or a tone that underrepresented-minority faculty members viewed as positive – that could affect attrition.


Q. The paper mentions the possibility of universities hiring CDOs just to say they have them, or to show they are committed to diversity without enacting a whole lot of internal change. Do you think these findings speak to that idea?

A. We took the rosy assumption that university administrators, when they make the decision to establish a CDO, are acting benevolently to increase diversity. When we sent this paper out for review, that was one of the criticisms. They said, “Well, how do you know?” And, of course the answer is, we don’t. We took that assumption because everywhere within the paper, where there was a modeling choice, we tried to make assumptions that would be favorable toward finding results.

If CDOs were a smokescreen, it might be possible to find negative effects on diversity. We did find that one negative coefficient, but I’m hesitant to say this is evidence of this theory. If a CDO comes about from an institutional discussion that “Our diversity is really lacking and we need to improve,” it’s not surprising that institutions that hire CDOs would be less diverse. It’s sick people who go to the doctor, right?

{snip} For instance, the proportion of underrepresented faculty hired is actually higher for institutions that have no CDO. {snip}