Diversity Officers: No Unicorns, Just Determined Leaders

By Christine J. Pendleton  

While the chief diversity officer role has existed for roughly two decades in higher education, it is still gaining acceptance and traction. Many institutions have yet to create the position, while others have just hired their inaugural DEI-focused executive. Meanwhile, anti-DEI legislation cropping up in various states and the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action are serious threats to how diversity officers can help their campuses achieve their missions. However, there is still, and will continue to be, a need for institutions to create a broad-based, inclusive environment that embraces students and staff from all walks of life. 

What is of greater concern is how effective CDOs can be given the environment in which they have to perform their jobs. DEI initiatives tend to be woefully underfunded yet with unrealistic expectations. Five years ago WittKieffer published a survey report on CDOs’ “critical first year” in their roles. Most diversity officers told us they had support from their presidents and campus constituents but didn’t necessarily have the resources to fulfill their mandates. Many felt their institutions expected them, unilaterally, to “fix” DEI on campus. There are no “CDO unicorns”, one respondent said. 

It is noteworthy, therefore, that NADOHE – the organization representing diversity officers in academia – has just produced its own inaugural comprehensive “State of the CDO” survey report which echoed many similar themes from five years ago. 

Some of the report’s most intriguing data include the following: 

  • Roughly two-thirds of respondents were the first CDOs at their institutions; nearly 9 of 10 have held the role for less than five years. 
  • One-third of respondents had annual operating budgets under $39,000 (!) and most had zero to two full-time staff. More than a third felt they didn’t have enough resources to do their jobs adequately.  
  • Echoing our report of five years ago, too few diversity leaders believed their work to be “manageable”. The primary words that CDOs used to describe the role were “stressful” and “upsetting” (page 25).  

This last point should cause alarm among presidents, boards, and other constituents who are depending on diversity officers to help transform their institutions. Included at the tail end of the report (page 34) is the fact that CDOs expect their most significant future concern to be “Mental Health Issues for Faculty, Staff and Students”. If diversity leaders are concerned with their own well-being, it is hard to imagine them being able to fully devote themselves to the well-being of their campus colleagues. 

Another interesting nugget from NADOHE’s report: CDOs who have been at institutions less than a year report that their presidents utilize them as trusted advisors at almost the same rate as those at institutions who have had a CDO for 15 years or more (page 22). This might not be a bad thing—it could signal that presidents are prioritizing DEI initiatives and respecting the CDO role more than in the past. Indeed, more short-tenured CDOs (under five years) in the NADOHE report suggest they have a “seat at the table” for institutional planning and decision-making than their long-tenured counterparts.  

Support for the CDO in its broadest terms seems to be much stronger at institutions which have had a diversity officer for a short time (one to five years) as opposed to those that have had a CDO for 15 years or more (page 23). This tells me that there is a greater understanding today that diversity leaders need resources in order to be effective and a greater appreciation for what a CDO can and can’t reasonably do. Presidents and senior leadership may finally be getting the message that CDO unicorns just don’t exist.   

A question institutions must ask, then: How can we better support our diversity officer with both organizational support (i.e., resources) and personal support? A few ideas include the following: 

  • Provide your CDO with a seat at the table.  
  • Empower your CDO with the appropriate financial resources, staffing, and authority to create meaningful change. 
  • Get creative with compensation. Higher education institutions are at-risk of losing strong diversity leaders to the corporate or other sectors because of compensation. Being creative with the total compensation package including tenure lines, sabbaticals, and vacation time could help with retention of your CDO.  
  • Professional development: It is very important for CDOs to be able to network and engage with others in the profession as the role can be isolating. Providing your CDO with opportunities for professional development is critical for their success.   

The chief diversity officer role is maturing, and it is not going away. If anything, it is just finding its footing while also evolving as the landscape of higher education changes. The voices of CDOs, I believe, will contribute to a renaissance in higher education in the U.S. – one in which campuses are more diverse, equitable, and inclusive than ever before.