Campus Chief Diversity Officers: An Important, Evolving Role

By  - 

wanda-s-mitchellColleges and universities are incubators for intellectual dialogue, laboratories for creative and innovative inquiry, and hubs for cutting-edge research. But more important, college campuses are places where students can be challenged beyond their expectations to achieve academic and career success, as well as attain transformative knowledge.

Inclusive, diverse, and equitable higher education institutions usually seek out chief diversity officers (CDOs) to provide leadership on campus and in the external community, as well as provide strategic vision, leadership, coordination, and planning to further strengthen diversity and inclusion as core institutional values. Next to the president, no other administrator has the breadth and depth of responsibilities as CDOs have; however, this position usually lacks the formal authority afforded to other executive leaders.

A Challenging Landscape
Much has occurred in our nation, states, and local communities as of late that has caused us to think about how to best advance diversity and inclusion at our institutions and in our communities at large in order to achieve collective success for our students, faculty, staff, and other community members.

We are reminded daily that the world is deeply interconnected — a fact that is forcing colleges and universities to ensure the core values of diversity and inclusion because they are key to their mission and existence. The landscape of this work is changing, and as diversity leaders, we must recognize the complexity of peoples’ identities and the need to approach diversity and inclusion with an eye on the intersectionality of differences. This need is magnified by the injustices we witness in society.

Strategies for Leading Others
When working with multiple constituencies, CDOs must have a good sense of self and a willingness to understand the varied perspectives of colleagues who are needed to help champion institutional causes. Establishing goals, strategic action plans, and outcome measures is critical to gaining the support of colleagues in order to move agendas forward.

CDOs, if supported by their institutions and community members, can prompt others to take action by doing the following:

● Spotlighting key issues and trends needed to advance the institution’s diversity and inclusion agenda through frequent and relevant communication to various constituent groups.

● Creating the opportunity for dialogue and the exchange of ideas regarding the next phases of diversity and inclusion initiatives, with an understanding that it is critical to seek input from all members of the community.

● Strategically offering cultural competence, social justice, and equity workshops and training to educate and inform university members of their responsibility to advance and actualize the institution’s commitment to diversity and inclusion; this is necessary to change individual attitudes and behaviors while transforming institutional policies, practices, and overall campus culture.

● Linking diversity initiatives to key university outcome measures included in the university strategic plan, academic plans, fundraising and grant-writing goals, budgetary plans, accreditation, and the academic and institutional mission.

● Identifying ways that institutions can influence quality, effect change, and promote community through inclusive practices, keeping in mind that diversity and inclusion require the participation of all members of the campus community.

It is important for senior diversity officers to be viewed as facilitators of change, leaders of influence, colleagues, and resource partners. They must constantly work to advance an inclusive educational community for students, faculty, and staff of differing perspectives, lifestyles, experiences, and cultural backgrounds. Therefore, working with multiple constituencies to provide visionary leadership using team-focused, people-centered, outcome-oriented, welcoming, and transparent practices — such as those listed above — to accomplish objectives is key to the success and longevity of CDOs. High-energy, collaborative, and reflective leadership is especially critical to this work in these demanding times.

Furthermore, CDOs should be visible and highly functioning agents of higher education institutions who work with others to confront and expose inequities and promote policies, practices, and initiatives that make their universities more welcoming communities for all people.

After 12 years of leadership as the founding CDO at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of New Hampshire — two very different types of institutions — I have learned that diversity officers’ interests cannot be one-dimensional or stagnant. More important, these individuals must be capable of working in widely diverse and dynamic milieus and communities while remaining focused on the vision of their organization and never neglecting the constituents they serve. Melding one’s personal vision with that of an organization in order to grow and develop that organization is a necessary skill. Sometimes diversity leaders will be tasked with taking on daunting challenges and unchartered pathways with the confidence that they possess the courage and stamina to lead through collaboration and shared governance.

Additionally, the CDO is a senior administrative leader who is required, like all senior leaders, to exercise effective management, implement policies, uphold confidentiality, and use sound judgment. At the same time, he or she must provide broad-based visionary leadership that focuses on understanding the culture and climate of the institution and community while fostering relationships with community members.

Many colleges and universities are looking for senior diversity leaders to facilitate wide-ranging initiatives that strengthen their institution’s collective commitment to creating an inclusive campus climate through policies, practices, and education. Strategically juggling many institutional and community concerns is part of the daily activities of this evolving position. Therefore, the CDO must always remember that creating inclusive learning, living, and working communities is the responsibility of all campus members. While CDOs serve a central facilitative leadership role in advancing, supporting, and monitoring university-wide diversity and inclusion initiatives, they must articulate that they are not the be-all and end-all when it comes to diversity and inclusion efforts for the campus community.●

Wanda S. Mitchell is special assistant to the president for strategic initiatives and collaborations at Virginia Commonwealth University.