Chief Diversity Officers: Strategies for Success in the Current Moment

By Charlene L. Aguilar

Bold statements and new images have appeared on college websites as well as those of local organizations and some national corporations this summer, demonstrating an outpouring of solidarity against racial injustice. For campus communities, they express a historic commitment and current action to tackle and engage issues of racial injustice, institutional racism and health disparities amidst a global pandemic. One voice at the center of complex issues such as these is the Chief Diversity Officer – a strategic partner, invested leader and change agent – who helps colleges and universities move forward on the path to address inclusion with policies, programs and people. Their success and effectiveness as champions, conveners and catalysts is even more critical in a year unlike any other campuses have ever experienced. We are in a more charged environment, one in which these issues cannot be wished away and in which the CDO role is essential.

In this current climate, how does the university support the CDO effectively and emphatically? It’s a critical question. In the past few months, I have spoken with just under 40 CDOs about their challenges and hopes in the present moment. Most remain cautiously optimistic about their charge, seeing the current era as an opportunity for meaningful change. Many of their thoughts are reminiscent of opinions expressed in a 2017 WittKieffer survey report of CDOs. These leaders pivot with grace and courage, and have amplified their intellectual and emotional muscle exercised day in and day out in the face of uncertainties on campus intensified by the pandemic.

With the understanding that institutional support is absolutely critical, below are some key factors to success underscored by reflections and statements from sitting CDOs:

  • A seat at the leadership table and a voice that is valued and respected are essential, as is knowing what inclusion initiatives the president and provost will support.

“As CDO, I am trusted to drive change, leverage national connections and lift the visibility of diversity, equity, excellence and inclusion on campus,” noted one diversity officer. “I have authority; my president and provost are transparent, learn from what I bring to the table and view me as a thought leader and partner. It is a privilege to work together to transform and elevate the university as we innovate and ask the critical questions with a spirit of openness about each of our roles and responsibilities in creating an equitable and anti-racist community.”

  • Diversity and inclusion strategy needs to be integrated into the university’s stated goals, with clear objectives, metrics and accountability.

“My campus considers it a mandate to promote inclusion through assessing demographic data, launching specific initiatives and honoring achievements,” another current CDO notes. “We look at campus climate, cultural competency and retention of students, staff and faculty of color. We want our campus to be representative of the diverse community of our urban neighbors. Success means our campus community embraces our university’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. When new colleagues arrive, they experience that we are passionate about embedding these standards into our day-to-day work, curriculum and engagement in the classroom.”

  • It is important to balance real-time responses to crises as they emerge while also being strategic and visionary for the long term.

“Pandemic and riots aside, the transition to my campus has been great,” says one new CDO upon assuming the role. “The desire to respond to urgent and immediate needs, create intentional vision and take strategic action is a commitment forged in persistence and courage. This work is relentless, complex, and nonlinear, and its progression takes time. We must make room to navigate, take risks, innovate and make mistakes along the way, too. I feel fortunate that I am not on an island nor am I in a silo since diversity and inclusion are a shared responsibility among senior leaders and many other invested university partners.”

  • A lack of resources can be the greatest challenge.

Another CDO explains: “Campuses are dealing with the political polarization of the election season, drastic changes to Title IX, creating safe space for undocumented and international students, Free Speech, furloughs and the impact of COVID-19. My University faces a sudden economic crisis with significant budget cuts across all divisions including diversity, equity and inclusion. As a CDO without essential resources, it means I must scale back or eliminate completely DEI programs that will have disparate impact for marginalized and vulnerable campus constituents.”

Institutions of higher education are considered bastions of learning and innovation. They uphold noble missions and aspire to diversity and inclusion across their communities of students, staff, faculty and administrative leadership. The CDO brings vision, voice, experience and knowledge of best practices that are vital in this moment.

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