An increasing number of organizations across all sectors have added chief diversity officer (CDO) positions to their workforces in recent years to meet the demand for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) expertise. Following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and ensuing racial justice movement, this demand increased dramatically. In academia, this role has evolved to receive increased visibility and be elevated so that it is positioned more closely to centralized leadership, with many CDOs now reporting directly to the college or university president.
INSIGHT recently spoke with six newly appointed CDOs to discuss the challenges and rewards of this critically important job in today’s unique social and political climate.
Latricia “Tricia” Brand was named the inaugural CDO of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at Portland Community College in January 2019. Brand previously served as dean of student development at the college.
Michael Dixon was appointed chief inclusion and diversity officer at Susquehanna University, a small private school in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, in October 2019. Dixon was CDO at Manchester University in Indiana from 2017 to 2019.
Mercedes Ramírez Fernández, EdD, was named the inaugural vice president for equity and inclusion and CDO at the University of Rochester in July 2019. Fernández previously served as associate vice provost for strategic affairs and diversity at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Amoaba Gooden, PhD, was appointed vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Kent State University (KSU) in Ohio in May 2021 after serving in this position on an interim basis since April 2020. Gooden was also chairperson of the Department of Pan-African Studies at KSU for eight years.
Annabelle Goodwin, PhD, was named CDO at Northcentral University, a private online school, in June 2021. Goodwin previously served as director of equity and inclusion at the university since 2018. Goodwin also had been a professor of marriage and family therapy at the university since 2013.
Kristi Kelly, EdD, is the inaugural vice president for diversity and associate provost for student engagement, equity, and inclusion at Lewis University, a Catholic institution in Romeoville, Illinois. Prior to accepting her position in January 2021, Kelly had served as CDO at the university since 2018 and director of multicultural student services from 2015 to 2021.
Editor’s note: The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose to be a DEI administrator in higher education?
Brand: I had always had either multicultural student services or higher-level DEI goals, learning, or engagement be a part of my role as a student affairs administrator. I spent the first 17 years of my career in this type of role, primarily focusing on serving students of color, those who are first-generation, and those who are low-income. I advanced administratively, but I always had a focus on primarily serving the underrepresented students and historically marginalized. I made the decision [to become a CDO] at the urging of my institution. We had a transition out of the CDO position, and I was encouraged to apply. I had been leading or co-chairing the campus-based DEI committee for a couple of years, and I had the right background because of being in student affairs and serving as dean of students. It was a fairly seamless transition.
Goodwin: When I arrived for a full-time teaching job at my current institution, there was a group of us who mobilized and advocated for a diversity committee because we saw a need, and at that time our leadership supported that decision. Subsequently, I was asked to co-chair a university-level diversity committee. I started advocating for social justice progressively at higher levels, and that led to where I am now.
As a White woman, I recognize the privilege I hold, and I believe that I need to be intentional and actively anti-racist. I have opportunities to raise accountability that not everyone has access to, and I believe that for those of us who do have privilege and access, it’s our responsibility to pursue social justice.
Kelly: [DEI] is definitely part of my identity as a Black woman. I didn’t go to school to become a DEI practitioner. I always had a desire to contribute to transformational change, especially when you can visually, emotionally, and systemically see that something is not exactly right. Ultimately, the goal is to eliminate injustice, but I wanted to contribute to minimizing some of the injustice that I saw in the educational system in general.
“I spent the first 17 years of my career in this type of role, primarily focusing on serving students of color, those who are first-generation, and those who are low-income. I advanced administratively, but I always had a focus on primarily serving the underrepresented students and historically marginalized.”
Latricia “Tricia” Brand
Why do you think colleges and universities are now creating positions similar to yours?
Dixon: If you look at the issues that happened in 2020 with the ground-swelling and the awakening from America’s consciousness with regard to racial unrest, I think institutions began to realize that while they may have positions on campus that do DEI work, they don’t have high-profile DEI individuals who sit at senior leadership or on the president’s cabinet. This [realization] may have led people to feel like they needed to have somebody who is attuned to these issues and who has some training to be able to address these things.
Fernández: Since the 1960s, [students] have been the ones that have really called for progress at our institutions of higher education. The pandemic has become like an MRI where you can really see the inequities in higher education, and it’s hard to escape. Most campus leaders are recognizing this, and they know that they have to address it. But I don’t know if all of them realize the resources that it takes to advance this work, particularly where there’s no infrastructure.
Kelly: I would hope that it’s not just because it’s a trend. Institutions are now being held accountable in a way that they probably hadn’t been before. The value of having someone at the table to discuss justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion work is a necessity if we want to stay relevant and if we want to stay true to our institutional mission statements on diversity.
“… I think institutions began to realize that while they may have positions on campus that do DEI work, they don’t have high profile DEI individuals who sit at senior leadership or on the president’s cabinet.”
As a new CDO, what do you think you bring to this role over those that came before you?
Brand: Coming into this role right now requires a completely different kind of skillset. You have to be prepared to move with a greater sense of urgency. I think more seasoned CDOs are coming from [a place of] certain life and administrative experiences, where they are really going to be far more strategic and maybe a bit more willing to go for the long game, whereas new CDOs are being tapped for student affairs [work], for other corners of the academy, or even outside of the academy. We are expected to be conveners in the community.
Gooden: A new CDO may be more hopeful. There might be an excitement that may not exist with the CDO who has been in this position for a while.
One of my philosophies is that I stand on the shoulders of those who have come before me. In 2021, new CDOs can stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. For me, it’s about learning from the experiences of the people who have gone before me and opened the door. They have made it possible for me to step in and maybe achieve what wasn’t possible for them. Being in this role is new, but the difference is that I have a plethora of literature, experiences, and stages that can help me in ways that they probably didn’t have.
Goodwin: The many people who came before me had to do [this job] with less of a road map than I have. I am the beneficiary of all of their great work. There is now professional [development] and study associated with the work of a CDO that wasn’t nearly as available not long ago.
In 2017, I attended the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education conference for the first time, and I heard them excitedly share that the Standards for Professional Practice Institute was going to convene that summer. I did participate in 2020 and I gained insight, skills, mentors, and colleagues who I could journey with. Those who came before probably felt even more isolated than many of us feel today.
“The pandemic has become like an MRI where you can really see the inequities in higher education, and it’s hard to escape. Most campus leaders are recognizing this, and they know that they have to address it.”
Mercedes Ramírez Fernández
What have you found to be the most unexpected or challenging part of your job? How do you plan to overcome these obstacles?
Dixon: This position of a DEI [administrator] really cuts across the entire institution in ways that some other positions may not. It is a challenge when you believe that all of your work is in this DEI realm and not applicable to other things that may happen on campus. My work doesn’t look the same each day. There are things that I’m expected to be tasked with, and new things come up that administrators might think I should handle because I have a skillset that other senior leaders may not have. I know that I have to be on top of my game and constantly learning new things about how to apply [DEI] work to the different facets of university life.
Goodwin: It is both challenging and unexpected to know so deeply that DEI is imperative to success in higher education, yet some people see these ideas as threats, while many others see DEI-related initiatives as “nice to have” but not necessary to have.
Another challenging part of my job is accessing the institutional power that is required in order to really get things done. Part of the barrier here has to do with my own growth and development, and another is navigating a system that’s pretty entrenched and comfortable with the status quo. I am currently working on an initiative to develop a strategy around examining equity in access and outcomes for employees and students. When I am better able to point to our equity gaps based on our data, it will be hard to not reckon with the disparities that exist. I’m also working to build a culture where folks are well equipped to be part of the solution.
Kelly: The challenge has been resistance, and that is resistance from some colleagues and within the campus community. To overcome those obstacles, you have to work in tandem with the individuals who want to learn and grow and move the needle so you don’t get stuck on the challenges.
Another challenge is prioritizing what is important, whether it’s a Black issue, a Latino issue, a sexual orientation or LGBTQ issue, a migration issue, or something else. You have to really home in on what the priority is, because everything is important, and every person is important. But how does the institution decipher what will be addressed first without minimizing another population?
“One of my philosophies is that I stand on the shoulders of those who have come before me. In 2021, new CDOs can stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us.”
Many CDOs come from an academic background or receive a DEI training certificate. However, CDOs are often tasked with fundraising and other responsibilities that require special skillsets. Recently, INSIGHT partnered with University of Kentucky (UK) to develop a first-of-its-kind doctoral degree in DEI. What are your thoughts about the need for this specialized degree for CDOs?
Brand: I really love the idea of a doctoral degree for DEI because [the program] can address some of the most critical theories and framework that [CDOs] should have deeper knowledge of but that they won’t necessarily have to apply in the classroom or as a researcher or scholar. It develops the idea that you can be a practicing DEI executive or leader and still have a tremendous amount of expertise around theory, frameworks, and overall emerging scholarship.
Fernández: This is a lifelong journey of learning, so however you get there, the content is critical. I think it’s great that this is happening and that this curriculum is getting put together, because there are so many things that [CDOs] have to know. You have to know what the financial models are and how you are going to get to this metric and what the weight is of every metric.
Goodwin: I love this idea, and I imagine other programs will probably follow suit. I think we’re continuing to learn which skills and competencies are most needed for a successful CDO. My degree in human services and human development coupled with family therapy are a great fit, but I also have a lot to learn.
“As a White woman, I recognize the privilege I hold, and I believe that I need to be intentional and actively anti-racist. I have opportunities to raise accountability that not everyone has access to … .”
The late Wanda Mitchell, EdD, who served as vice president for inclusive excellence at Virginia Commonwealth University, once wrote, “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.” What can institutions do to better support CDOs in order for them to be more successful?
Brand: In order for my office to become a center of excellence where we can more broadly support the institution and sustainably lead with other leaders, we’re going to need more help. I need to have a manager of strategic initiatives. I need to have someone doing organizational learning about equity. I need someone to support data [work] like real data analysis. We should be doing climate surveys every other year, not every four years, but right now that is about all we can do. So there needs to be more staffing and more financial investment.
Dixon: Realign offices with the idea that it’s not just one person responsible for this work, but a team of people. Also, do not only rely on this team, but try to empower others and create capacity for them to be able to do this work effectively across the university.
Initially, when my current position was created, I was a single person in the president’s office. I knew that I needed to have relationships with faculty and be active with student life, athletics, and all the other [factors] in order to make our university’s DEI vision a reality. Senior leadership realized that we could move some pieces around in order to make myself and my work more successful, and we created a new division of inclusive excellence that will allow this vision and the work to be more centralized.
Goodwin: Invite CDOs in at every turn. When they are frequently seen alongside and overtly respected by the president, CDOs are more likely to be respected and taken seriously by everyone. They need to be empowered from the top down, but they also need time and space to connect with the community from the bottom up.
“I always had a desire to contribute to transformational change, especially when you can visually, emotionally, and systemically see that something is not exactly right. Ultimately, the goal is to eliminate injustice … .”
What do you like most about your job? Do you have any advice for aspiring CDOs?
Brand: Being able to be involved with strategic and systemic conversations. I love the strategy aspect of my job. My nugget of advice for others is ensure that you have a community because this can be very isolating work. Don’t delay on that.
Fernández: It’s the people. Whenever I’m having a hard time or feeling discouraged, I’m reminded that I’m not doing this work alone and that many people are contributing. For me, what realigns that feeling in an instant is the students.
My advice is to talk to people who are doing the work. Right now, [my office] is talking to a high schooler who is interested in doing this work, and we developed an experiential learning opportunity for her.
Also, remember that this is imperative work, and you never clock out. You may walk into a store and find yourself interrupting some sort of harassment that is going on.
Gooden: I like that I’m able to collaborate and institute change. My personal advice is to have a mentor and a friend that you can rely on, somebody who is going to have your back when you’re not in the room. Also, give yourself moments of grace and really take care of yourself. We’ve got to make sure that we are actually not harming ourselves as we’re working towards institutional change.●
Mariah Stewart is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.
This article was published in our December 2021 issue.