Higher education institutions across the country face heightened scrutiny with respect to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts. At least 30 states have introduced legislation to end or significantly limit campus diversity initiatives, despite research proving that learning in a diverse environment benefits all students. The assault on diversity, coupled with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning race-conscious admissions, will undoubtedly result in decreased racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses. In the face of these headwinds, it is essential to strengthen support for those who are tasked with leading diversity efforts, including chief diversity officers (CDOs), academic diversity officers (ADOs), and more recently, athletics diversity and inclusion designees (ADIDs).

The establishment of CDO positions is a relatively new phenomenon in higher education, created as universities across the country wrestled with how to infuse diversity initiatives throughout the broader campus community. A CDO’s primary responsibility is to address institutional issues related to DEI; their ability to implement diversity initiatives and build a campuswide diversity plan often depends on the level of commitment and support they receive from the university, and those who receive executive-level support and accountability tend to have greater success.

Similarly, the importance of ADOs receiving support from their supervisors should not be underestimated. While the role of CDOs often receives the most attention, ADOs play a critical role in advancing diversity initiatives within specific academic units and the broader campus community. The role of the ADO varies and is often impacted by the size, individual culture, and histories of their institutional division. Like many CDOs, ADOs tend to be current staff or faculty members tasked with multiple responsibilities labeled as part of the “diversity” agenda.

DEI responsibilities have continued to evolve, extending beyond the C-suite and academic affairs to include intercollegiate athletics. The NCAA now requires all Division I programs to have an ADID. Similar to the challenges that ADOs face, ADIDs’ roles vary by size, individual culture, and histories of their institutional athletic departments. As new diversity leadership roles emerge and evolve, there is a greater need for mentoring programs that offer knowledge and skills to help people succeed in increasingly challenging DEI contexts. To be sure, specific resourcing and support is needed for CDOs, ADOs, and ADIDs.

New NADOHE Fellows Program

A successful model for this kind of mentoring is the Academic Diversity Officer Fellows Program (ADOFP) by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE). Modeled after the highly successful NADOHE Chief Diversity Officers Fellows Program, ADOFP is a professional leadership program of mentorship for new and early-career academic diversity officers. The need for the program was identified after increasing numbers of ADOs applied to be a part of NADOHE’s CDO Fellows Program, sending a clear message that they also need support in navigating DEI issues.

The new ADO program provides each fellow with mentoring from a senior ADO. ADOFP is highly selective and collaborative with NADOHE member colleges and universities. NADOHE is investing in the current and future careers of new and early-career ADOs working in higher education and requires a commitment of one academic year on the part of the fellow and mentor.

Diversity Professionals as Advocates for Antiracism

In the inaugural cohort, ADOFP supported three ADOs in strengthening their institutional strategic impact and elevating their role. Through mentorship and resourcing, the fellows were able to implement activities, structure initiatives, and build infrastructure for focused DEI work through the lens of antiracism. During the fellowship year, NADOHE released “A Framework for Advancing Anti-Racism Strategy on Campus.” The framework offers guidance for equity-focused, antiracist work in higher education using strategies intended to support institutional culture change, which is long-term work. In the short term, it offers a road map to strategically engage faculty, students, staff, and key decision-makers in social justice-informed work through evidence-based practice.

ADOs can advocate for antiracism by directly addressing racist culture and policies and indirectly using the lens of antiracism to structure broader DEI goals. While institutional readiness for antiracism varies among schools, the framework offers a tool for determining appropriate next steps for action and developing long-term, strategic goals for the future.

From the perspective of NADOHE, a laser-focused approach to antiracism is the necessary work that this historical moment presents to higher education. ADOFP aims to support a cadre of people who have a shared vision for the future of higher education and who are resourced to lead this work.

Next Steps for Mentorship and Capacity Building

The success of NADOHE’s CDO and ADO fellowships provides a blueprint for effective, sustainable mentorship that is critical to the ongoing development of DEI professionals in higher education. As many of these individuals often work in isolation within their units, the supportive networks created by these kinds of programs provide the knowledge and community necessary for institutional change.

In addition to CDOs and ADOs, new roles such as the NCAA’s ADID will also need this kind of mentorship. Institutions will continue to address legislative restrictions in creative ways and develop new DEI-related roles to maintain and increase capacity of this needed work. The degree to which programs such as NADOHE’s CDO and ADO fellowships are sustainable is key. However, the burden of this work should not land on NADOHE’s shoulders alone. Other academic professional organizations should consider having discipline-specific mentoring and support opportunities that are formalized for people who serve in these roles.

Moreover, measuring the impact of these programs is an important opportunity that could be explored as a next step. The success of ADOs is truly a multipronged moment that NADOHE has seized with this innovative fellowship. The future of academic leadership could hinge on further expansion of these opportunities for leadership development, mentoring, and other professional resourcing.

Eleanor Fleming, PhD, DDS, is assistant dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion, and clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry.

Travis J. Albritton, PhD, is associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a clinical associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work.

Jessica Meharry, PhD, is visiting assistant professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design.

Venessa A. Brown, PhD, is associate athletic director for DEI and chief diversity officer, and professor in the Department of Social Work at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Brown is also a member of the INSIGHT Editorial Board.

This article was published in our November/December 2023 issue.