Beyond the Academy: Making the Transition from Higher Education CDO

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Two years ago,  my friend and colleague Deborale Richardson-Phillips informed me that she was leaving her role as the district director of diversity and inclusion at Cuyahoga Community College. She wasn’t leaving for another institution — she was leaving the academy altogether. 

Today, Richardson-Phillips serves as the diversity and inclusion lead at FirstEnergy Corporation, where she is responsible for developing and tracking diversity initiatives for the company. Her experience as a former higher education chief diversity officer (CDO) represents a growing trend of professionals who are advancing the work of diversity and inclusion beyond the “Ivory Tower.” 

I used to think that there were only two types of CDOs: those who worked in the corporate sector and those who worked in higher education. Over the years, I have interacted with a number of peers and colleagues who have taken on senior-level diversity officer roles outside of what I deemed the norm. In addition to corporate America, you can now find CDOs who work for nonprofits, national endowments and trusts, law firms and legal associations, hospitals, and major health organizations. The growing presence and variety of CDOs marks an important milestone in the evolution of this senior leadership position. 

The following are some of the various roles and individuals who have made successful transitions into CDO positions outside of higher education. 

Secondary Schools
The role of secondary school CDOs is very similar to that of their higher education counterparts. These individuals are responsible for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across their institution, and they work with a wide constituency, including students, administrators, parents, and local school and community officials. 

A notable secondary school CDO is national thought leader, author, and consultant Eddie Moore Jr., founder of America & Moore, LLC. Moore was one of the early pioneers in the secondary school arena. He worked at a number of colleges and universities before serving as the director of diversity at the Bush School in Seattle, Wash., and the Brooklyn Friends School in New York City. 

Another notable secondary school CDO is Tchet Dereic Dorman, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, Pa. Prior to this role, Dorman served in a variety of diversity positions at numerous colleges and universities across the country, including working as the director of diversity and social justice at Millersville University.

Public Sector
Public sector CDOs include positions at a number of local, state, and federal agencies — both in the U.S. and abroad. These roles vary by institution but often focus on compliance and affirmative action, supplier diversity, training, and professional development. 

Increasingly, a growing number of cities and state governments have established CDO roles as part of their senior cabinet or administration. There are also several CDOs who serve at accredited postsecondary military schools and academies. 

A notable public sector CDO is Aram deKoven, chief diversity officer for the United States Coast Guard Academy. Prior to his current role, deKoven served as an associate professor in education studies at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire and taught several courses on multiculturalism as a former member of the faculty at the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Cortland. 

Arts and Sciences
CDOs in this arena are responsible for leading institutional culture and strategy as well as talent acquisition throughout their organization. They are primarily concerned with increasing the diversity of artists, exhibitions, and administrators who work at museums. 

Makeba Clay made history not once but twice — most recently, in her appointment as the first chief diversity officer for the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Previously, Clay served as the inaugural chief diversity officer for the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art under the leadership of former museum director and international diversity thought leader Johnnetta Cole. Prior to her work in national museums, Clay held several prominent diversity positions, including serving as the associate vice president of institutional equity and diversity at the College of Southern Maryland and director of the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality + Cultural Understanding at Princeton University. 

Considerations for Becoming a CDO Outside of the Academy
If you are thinking about making the transition to a CDO role outside of higher education, you should do the following: 

● Determine your short- and long-term career trajectory.

● Explore the similarities and differences between your current higher education environment and your new area of interest.

● Identify a CDO or other mentor in your area of interest.

● Familiarize yourself with the qualifications for this specific field or area of interest.

● Develop a set of transferable skills.

● Establish a realistic and appropriate timeline. 

There are many reasons why CDOs would be interested in working outside of academia. For some, these positions offer more pay and flexible work schedules. This is particularly true for secondary school CDOs, who enjoy full or partial breaks in the summer. For others, it is simply an opportunity to gain a breadth and depth of professional experience. For example, CDOs who work in the arts and sciences can gain valuable grant-writing and foundation experience while interacting with diverse groups and populations around the world. Furthermore, these roles can position individuals to assume advanced administrative and leadership roles — both now and in the future. 

The decision to work as a CDO outside of the academy is dependent on a number of personal and professional factors. Fortunately, the growth and expansion of these positions has led to increased opportunities for current and aspiring diversity professionals to advance the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion on an even greater strategic and global scale.●

James A. Felton III is the chief diversity officer at SUNY Cortland. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. This article was published in our June 2018 issue.