Top 10 Recommendations for Inaugural CDOs

You walk into your new office, delighted at the opportunity to be recognized for your talents and professionalism as the implementer of your institution’s strategic goals and mission around diversity, equity, and inclusion. As you sit at your new desk and peer out the window overlooking your campus, you begin to contemplate the enormous responsibility now placed on your shoulders.

You may be the inaugural chief diversity officer (CDO) on your campus, a position created in response to student protests, campus climate issues, or global concerns that directly affect your students, faculty, staff, and administrators — in essence, your community. You have either climbed the ladder at your institution and your colleagues recognize your ability to be a brilliant, forward-thinking leader, or you’ve just been hired and no one knows you, but based on your qualifications and professional status, your new colleagues are eager to work with you on designing the diversity vision for the campus. In either case, you need to begin to plan your first steps, and this can often be a yearlong process.

To ensure a successful transition into your new role as CDO, here are 10 pieces of advice:

1. Seek membership. Joining professional organizations such as the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) and other regional diversity-related associations places you in a community of experts. Use your membership in these groups to find mentors and speakers, identify campus climate assessment tools, and keep up with current diversity issues. In addition, these organizations provide ideal opportunities for professional growth and development.

2. Read. Two recommended books are The Chief Diversity Officer by Damon A. Williams, PhD, and Katrina C. Wade-Golden, PhD, and Strategic Diversity Leadership, also by Williams. After you read the latter, share the book with your senior staff, and try to encourage discussion about ideas presented in the book. Make a point to also regularly read and share with your staff diversity-related periodicals; these publications will keep you abreast of recent research on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

3. Listen. There is a clear difference between hearing what a person says and truly listening. Take time to understand individuals’ points of view and recognize where they are coming from before offering an opinion or advice. Listening to members of the university community will help you get a feel for the campus’s pulse in regard to diversity and inclusion. Do not make any drastic decisions without first consulting with senior staff. Employing an open-door office policy will lead to community meetings, forums, and workshops on topics that are at the forefront of the institution.

4. Send a message. Immediately send the message to senior staff and the entire campus community that diversity and inclusion are everyone’s responsibility. This can be done subtly or through the development of a strategic plan that includes a strong statement about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Your job is to be the change agent, the visionary, the implementer — but you cannot do this work effectively if you do not have a team to help you develop strategies around core diversity issues on your campus.

5. Engage the campus community, and use “we,” not “I.” You will need to designate a committee, taskforce, or council to hold challenging discussions about campus climate issues; you may also decide to conduct a campus climate survey to determine what issues exist on your campus. As you determine who will be on this committee, make sure you include voices of those who may not be as comfortable with or committed to developing diversity initiatives. Listen carefully to these voices, because there are community members who may also feel this way. As you communicate diversity initiatives to members of the community, use the term “we” as much as possible. Using “we” and “our” emphasizes that a group of colleagues is working together on diversity initiatives. Doing so also serves as a subtle reminder that diversity, equity, and inclusion is everyone’s responsibility.

6. Maintain scholarship. Keep up with your publications, research, and conference presentations. If you have not published or presented in a while, find a colleague who will work with you on producing a professional product.

7. Seek out mentors. Find mentors inside and outside of your institution to help you process the issues you have encountered. On-campus mentors can help you navigate the campus culture, offer advice, and serve as a sounding board for ideas that you are considering. Off-campus mentors will help you see your campus’s issues from a different perspective, and it may be easier to vent to someone not directly affiliated with your institution.

8. Make time for self-care. The work you do is good work, but it is also hard work. It can take a toll on your mind, body, and spirit as you learn to navigate challenging conversations and issues. Recognize your limitations and stop to take care of yourself. Specifically set time aside to meet your mental, physical, and spiritual health and well-being needs.

Your job is to be the change agent, the visionary, the implementer — but you cannot do this work effectively if you do not have a team to help you develop strategies around core diversity issues on your campus.   

9. Make time for family and loved ones. Family and loved ones come first. If you are spending so much time at work that you are neglecting the needs of those who love and count on you, this will cause unhappiness. There will always be situations out of your control in which you may need to spend evenings or weekends on campus. To balance the pressures from home and employment responsibilities, try incorporating the two; if you have children, bring them to participate in fun on-campus activities, or invite your partner or other loved ones to attend speaking events with you. However, when you have to spend Saturday on campus, make sure you spend Sunday with family and friends.

10. Reflect. After every challenging or campus-altering meeting or discussion, take time to reflect on the outcome and your influence on decisions made. As the CDO, your main goal is to produce culturally competent citizens for a global society — in four years, no less. Campus colleagues rely on you to lead the university as they engage in dialogue and learn about challenging issues such as implicit bias, cultural appropriations, and microaggressions. Taking time to reflect on your actions, beliefs, and integrity will have a direct effect on how you continue to lead campus diversity initiatives.

With these 10 recommendations in mind, you will be better prepared to lead your college or university toward making our world a better, more inclusive place for all. ●

Gretchel L. Hathaway, PhD, is the dean of diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at Union College in New York. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Union College is a 2013-2016 HEED Award recipient.