The Class of 2015: Highlights and Reflections from CDOs Hired in the 2014-2015 Academic Year

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James-FeltonThe role of the chief diversity officer (CDO) is an evolving field that is in high demand. According to various higher education sources, there were more than 30 senior-level diversity appointments in the 2014-2015 academic year. Although titles and scope of responsibilities vary by institution, it is evident that colleges and universities are looking for new, as well as seasoned, professionals who can provide diversity management at a strategic and leadership level. I checked in with a few colleagues to see how they have been doing since they were appointed last year.

Grand Valley State University
One of the most notable appointments this past year was Dr. Jesse Bernal, vice president for inclusion and equity at Grand Valley State University — a position previously held by longtime diversity champion Dr. Jeanne Arnold, now at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Bernal said he was interested in becoming a CDO after holding a number of previous diversity officer positions. Grand Valley State had been on his radar for many years as it was one of the first universities to create a CDO position.

“There were a few institutions back in 2007 and 2006 that created senior management-level positions at the vice president level that reported to a president and had a budget, staff, and offices under them,” Bernal says. “Grand Valley was one of the first, along with the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin. There were a couple of others that had done this at the time, but it was sort of a signification of the president’s understanding of the priorities for his tenure at Grand Valley.”

Bernal plans to promote greater collaboration and coordination for structural diversity, as well as campus climate and professional and educational development. He is also preparing to administer Grand Valley’s fifth campus climate survey this fall.

University of Central Florida
Karen Morrison served an impressive career as the director of inclusion for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) prior to becoming CDO at the University of Central Florida (UCF).

“It’s been really interesting,” Morrison says. “In many ways this is a new role and a new institution for me — and a new role for the institution to appreciate. We are the second-largest institution in the country. We have over 60,000 students and over 11,000 faculty and staff.”

Morrison has a clear vision for the work and her role at UCF. “The university wanted to re-evaluate what it was doing with the position in light of what was happening in higher education,” she says. “They wanted an enterprise-wide position that reported to the president, the advisory staff, and the chief of staff and helped coordinate campus-wide diversity and inclusion work impacting all students, faculty, and the community.”

Morrison says she plans to create an active mechanism to increase collaboration among the many individuals who do diversity work on campus and develop a messaging campaign to re-emphasize the university’s goals of becoming more inclusive and diverse.

Framingham State University
Framingham State University hired Sean Huddleston as its first chief diversity and inclusion officer as part of a continuous effort to prepare and respond to the growing diversity on campus and in the community. The university’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion provided the foundation for this new position, and it became a top priority for Dr. Javier Cevallos almost immediately after he took the helm as president of Framingham State in 2014.

“I am really fortunate to have a very supportive president,” Huddleston says. “I think coming into this position or coming into any CDO position, if you don’t have a president who sets a tone and direction for the institution, it’s going to be difficult to gain traction.”

Huddleston was pleasantly surprised by the number of committed faculty, staff, and students who are also focused on ensuring that diversity, inclusion, and equity are top priorities of the university. “It has made a really wonderful transition for me into this role in that we have been able to move the work forward rather quickly,” he says.

In less than a year, Huddleston went from an office to a division composed of two centers: the Center for Inclusive Excellence and the Center for College Planning — a joint partnership with MassBay Community College that was established to create more access to higher education for underrepresented, underserved populations within the region.

Everett Community College
María Peña is the first CDO at Everett Community College in Everett, Wash. She represents a small number of CDOs who exist at the community college level nationally. She previously served as special assistant to the president for diversity and dean of students at Peninsula College. However, she was drawn to Everett Community College because of its outstanding work with Native American student populations, its reputation for community engagement, and its ability to influence underrepresented communities on a deeper level.

“I believe the power of these positions at two-year institutions is that we have flexibility and are dynamic in that we can really move diversity, equity, and inclusion at higher levels,” Peña says. “I spent the last year listening, learning, and engaging the community, both on and off campus. This entailed identifying key stakeholders at the local and statewide level.”

In addition to creating an institutional diversity plan for the college, Peña is currently working with the Washington State Instruction Commission for Community and Technical Colleges to create a taskforce composed of CDOs and other key stakeholders to address instruction from an equity and social justice perspective.

Columbia University
While some of the appointments over the last year have consisted of new positions, others were the result of organizational restructuring and an expansion of existing portfolios.

Dr. Dennis Mitchell had previously served 12 years as the senior associate dean for diversity affairs at the Columbia College of Dental Medicine before being promoted to associate vice provost for faculty diversity and inclusion at Columbia University. His promotion reflects an unprecedented financial commitment on the part of the university — $80 million over 11 years — to enhance a climate of inclusiveness.

“The one thing that is different about my role … is that the majority of our resources are targeted to faculty recruitment and improving the lives of women and minority faculty,” says Mitchell.

He credits his success in this new role to the support he received from the university’s board of trustees, the president, and the provost. “It’s a perfect storm of support, and I am very pleased,” Mitchell says. “They unanimously approved additional resources moving forward and quickly approved a significant amount of funds to do this work.”

In addition to improving campus climate through programs, minority faculty recruitment, and minority junior faculty support, Mitchell and his staff will begin to bring in faculty members whose work is in the area of LGBTQ scholarship. “We will be able to bring in four new faculty [members] whose work is in this area to help complement the work that’s really being done here, both at the undergraduate and professional school levels.”

University of California System
Dr. Yvette Gullatt was recently appointed as the new vice provost and chief outreach officer in the Department of Diversity and Engagement for the University of California (UC) System. Gullatt had worked for the system for 25 years as the vice provost for educational partnerships. Her new role signifies the system’s efforts to create a senior-level position that will coordinate efforts across all UC campuses.

“I think the work is a reflection of a growing recognition across our campus of the need to have specific and overt attention [focused] on equity, diversity, and inclusion,” Gullat says. “It’s not something you can take for granted that’s just going to happen — having that deliberate focus, a very systems focus, on how do we actually improve both the diversity of the students who are coming into the university and the experiences that our students are having while they are at the university.”

Gullatt plans to build upon her previous work in educational partnerships to not only increase but also strengthen the academic pipeline from K-12 to higher education. “Diversity isn’t something that we can choose to do; it’s a fact of our existence, and the absence of it on our campuses is actually an existential threat to our institutions,” she says.

At a time when diversity and inclusion is at a crossroads, these new and existing leaders have already demonstrated that they have the background, knowledge, and expertise to be successful in their roles on their respective campuses. I wish them continued success.●

James A. Felton III is the chief diversity officer at Anne Arundel Community College, a 2015 HEED Award recipient.  Read more on page 67.