The number of chief diversity officers (CDOs) in higher education continues to rise. For many years, these positions were commonly associated with four-year colleges and universities and, in particular, predominantly white institutions. However, CDOs are now found at women’s colleges, historically black colleges and universities, state system offices, and even naval and military academies across the country and abroad.
Additionally, shifts in student demographics have led to the emergence of CDOs at a number of two-year colleges. William Rainey Harper College, Anne Arundel Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, Greenville Technical College, and two-year institutions within the State University of New York (SUNY) System are part of a growing number of community colleges that have created CDO positions. These appointments indicate that the need for diversity leaders is just as pressing at two-year colleges as it is at four-year schools. However, CDOs at community colleges have some unique and distinct factors to consider as they execute their responsibilities in this senior-level role.
Access. Relative to their four-year counterparts, community colleges have a larger presence of students who are working professionals, nontraditional, single parents, and veterans and active military officers. Additionally, individuals enrolled at these institutions tend to be more transient, and so the range of programs they pursue and the services they require are more varied and unpredictable. Furthermore, many of these students are first-generation and therefore often unaware of issues related to acculturation, stereotype threat, and microaggressions that accompany access to higher education. CDOs at two-year institutions need to be sensitive to issues of culture shock and work closely with staff, as well as social and human services agencies in the community, to develop programs that meet the myriad needs of this audience.
Persistence. CDOs at four-year institutions often have the benefit of culturally based organizations (e.g., minority peer-mentoring programs, religious groups, and multicultural and Greek organizations), campus housing, and minority-center gathering spaces that aid in the creation of a sense of belonging on campus. Research has shown that a sense of belonging is key to persistence — which is often a challenge for students on community college campuses.
The community college CDO will need to work to create a campus environment that says to students from underrepresented populations that they are not only welcome on campus, but that they belong. This challenge may seem insurmountable to the two-year CDO. However, collaborating with colleagues in student affairs as well as student club advisers and members will help make the large community college space feel more intimate, inviting, and inclusive.
Completion. The equity imperative at two- and four-year schools is not that different. However, one of the major concerns for two-year colleges is completion. “The ‘completion agenda’ — the reform movement led by state and federal policymakers designed to increase dramatically the number of students graduating from our nation’s colleges and universities — continues to drive the development of new programs and initiatives,” says Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a student success movement.
Stout acknowledges that efforts to support student success at a community college have to be intentional and must be guided by this question: “Completion to what end?” CDOs at two-year institutions have to be well informed about initiatives that support students’ retention, and they must have a seat at the table to ensure that issues of equity are at the center of all campus policies, procedures, and practices that ultimately affect the completion rates of underrepresented students.
Outreach. Having significant input on campus is important, but the two-year CDO must also seek a seat at the table outside campus. Developing external and community partnerships is a vital component of working at the community-college level. Although four-year institutions also develop such partnerships, this is critical work for two-year schools. Community college CDOs must routinely foster proactive and supportive collaboration with leaders and organizations that directly affect and serve the needs and interests of their students and the surrounding community. If a CDO wishes to be proactive as opposed to reactive in addressing the needs of an ever-changing student population, it is essential to understand those needs.
Employee Diversity. Similar to CDOs at four-year schools, those at community colleges must also work closely with colleagues in the human resources office and the institutional research office, as well as with all members of the president’s cabinet, to ensure that accountability measures are in place for monitoring the diversity of faculty, staff, and administrators. Transformation of the student experience will be sustained only if students have an opportunity to engage with people who resemble them and share the intersectionalities of their identity.
As more individuals from diverse backgrounds enroll in community colleges, these schools must be intentional in their efforts to diversify the workforce on their campuses. The CDO has the unique opportunity to work with local professionals from various corporations and industries to increase the number of tenure-track and adjunct faculty who not only know their students personally, but who can also identify with their stories.
If you are an existing or aspiring CDO at a community college, it is vital to familiarize yourself with the various factors that define the work of the CDO in this space. Additionally, you should have a keen awareness of the myriad issues that can affect the access, persistence, and completion of students from historically underrepresented populations and other social identity groups at the two-year level. This work will at times be exhilarating and humbling, but most important — when done well — it can be transformative.●
James A. Felton III is the chief diversity officer at SUNY Cortland. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Michelé E. Smith is the vice president of workforce solutions and associate provost for curriculum at William Rainey Harper College.