Team Approach to CDO Operations Sets Cornell Apart

Many universities have a single chief diversity officer, but Cornell uses five chief diversity officers to deliver a bigger impact in advancing diversity and inclusion throughout the university.

Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., spreads the responsibilities for the chief diversity officer over five administrators to “make it much more difficult for people to marginalize any one of us,” says Lynette Chappell-Williams.

It’s a diversity model rarely seen across the academic landscape even as more higher education institutions continue to add CDOs to their top administrative ranks.

Given the complexity of Cornell’s campus, university leaders like Lynette Chappell-Williams believe the multipronged CDO approach is more effective than having one person in the job.

Chappell-Williams is Cornell’s associate vice president for inclusion and workforce diversity and one of four administrators who currently share the CDO position. The fifth is currently vacant.

“We’ve not found many who are doing this. It works for us because we are decentralized,” said Chappell-Williams, who has been a diversity officer at Cornell for 15 years. “In a centralized organization, the decision about the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of diversity is developed at the top and pushed down.

“In a decentralized organization, the diversity effort moves forward in a matrixed way, where each organization within the broader organization advances its diversity efforts.”

The five positions work as one CDO and focus on a number of the university’s constituent groups: undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and staff. Chappell-Williams oversees staff development and also serves as the Title IX coordinator.

“It’s not Lynette’s program,” said Chappell-Williams. “It makes it much more difficult for people to marginalize any one of us, because we’re all saying the same thing. People listen.”

In addition to Chappell-Williams, Renee Alexander, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs, concentrates on engagement of diverse undergraduate students; Yael Levitte is associate provost for faculty diversity and development; and A.T. Miller, associate vice provost for academic diversity, focuses on the academic success of the university’s diverse undergraduate students.

The diversity officers are responsible for other diversity-related work outside their CDO roles; about 20 percent of their job is functioning as a CDO, while the bulk of their diversity work is organizational.

Cornell adopted its innovative CDO model in 2012 to foster more collaboration and consistency in diversity initiatives and programs among its various colleges and departments.

“My role has gone from being an initiator to being more of a collaborator,” said Chappell-Williams. “For example, it’s saying, ‘Hey, you’re working on a disability issue. Did you know the College of Humanities is doing the same thing as well?’”

That same year, Cornell launched its Toward New Destinations initiative, which calls for each college and administrative unit to identify five annual measurable goals in any of four priority areas: composition, engagement, inclusion, and achievement.

In its first year, Toward New Destinations established 158 diversity initiatives from the university’s 27 colleges and administrative units. More than 7,000 faculty and staff in 13 colleges and administrative units completed a training program on preventing sexual harassment and violence. In the second year of the program, 146 diversity initiatives were established.

Cornell’s efforts in promoting diversity and inclusion have not gone unnoticed:

  • In 2007, Cornell was one of five organizations nationwide to receive Exemplary Voluntary Efforts recognition from the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.
  • In 2011, President Obama recognized Cornell’s diversity programs in engineering with one of eight Presidential Awards bestowed to individuals and organizations for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.
  • For seven years Cornell was recognized by AARP for its work in addressing the needs of older workers, including twice being named the number one employer.
  • In 2014, Cornell received the INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award.


Meanwhile, diverse students are not satisfied to remain quietly ensconced in academic programs at Cornell; they are making their voices heard. Ethnically diverse students like Lisa Liu play a major role in influencing diversity policy at the school.

Liu, 21, a senior biological science major, became involved in diversity issues on campus after a 2013 Cinco de Mayo marketing campaign by the Cornell Athletics Department drew criticism from Latino students. As part of the campaign, Cornell’s football team chose to wear Mexican attire to a game against Colgate University.

“The Latino students felt the players could take off their Mexican garb at night, but said, ‘We can’t change our identity.’ That inspired me to get involved in diversity issues,” said Liu, who is Asian American. “Every single day, we do little things that we don’t realize we do but have a meaningful impact on others.”

The incident led to a dialogue about diversity between students and the administration. CDO Alexander facilitated a group discussion with the entire football team about cultural sensitivity and viewed the three-part NPR special “Race: the Power of Illusion” with the team and with the athletics department leadership. In January, Alexander will be following up with the football team.

Liu now serves on Cornell’s Student Assembly Committee on Inclusion and Diversity Initiatives, which works closely with diversity officers and other senior administrators to tackle diversity issues.

Through such experiences, Liu believes she is well prepared for a lifelong commitment to improving diversity.

“The University really provides avenues for students like myself to get involved,” said Liu. “Now that I have this information, not only will I tackle diversity issues at Cornell, but I’m someone who can continue this work for the rest of my life.”

Is having multiple CDOs superior to having one? Each university and college situation is different. But with the success Cornell has achieved, others are sure to be looking at whether it’s better to give more administrators CDO responsibilities.●

Tannette Johnson-Elie is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. To learn more about the INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award, visit