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Reflections on the Professional Development of a Successful Senior Diversity Officer in Higher Education

At a time when colleges and universities are faced with a plethora of challenges associated with modeling a complex campus community that mirrors the faces of the social and cultural demographics of our respective states and society, many university executive leaders such as presidents and chancellors look to key individuals to lead diversity, equity and inclusion efforts from a cabinet level, titled leadership position.

This cabinet level, titled leadership position is often referred to as a chief diversity officer. We recognize the use of the term chief diversity officer is problematic in a variety of spaces, so for the purposes of this article, and with intentionality, we use senior diversity officer.

Marilyn S. MobleyMarilyn S. Mobley

In a 2020 report in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, R.L. Worthington, C.A. Stanley and D.G. Smith state that “whereas many professions begin with specialized training through educational credentials at the graduate level, the history and nature of the work of diversity in higher education resulted in a wide-ranging set of pathways to the role of diversity officers as cabinet-level campus leaders. The types of expertise and professional backgrounds of diversity officers were so widely varied across time that the field itself struggled to form a conceptual framework about the focus and boundaries of the work, much less achieve legitimacy, recognition and respect as a profession in higher education settings.”

Over the years, the need and work of the senior diversity officer have evolved to encompass the development of standards of professional practice that clearly illustrate “the broad range of knowledge and practices reflected in the work across institutional contexts,” write Worthington, Stanley and Smith. Additionally, executive search firms, who are paid by colleges and universities to fill these positions, are not always aware of the history of the field, including the mission-driven goals and values of institutions used to drive the expectation that senior diversity officers are the change agents for diversity, equity and inclusion in colleges and universities.

Given that this is the current nature of the field in which senior diversity officers work, why aren’t we paying attention to how we support individuals to maintain professional skills and credentials? How do senior diversity officers practice self-care? What are the appropriate venues to accomplish professional development? Is it a conference? Is it a boot camp? These critical questions have surfaced, for example, in conversations during the annual conference of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE).

From our experience and conversations, many senior diversity officers have likened their leadership experience to “missionary work,” “working in a battlefield,” “swimming upstream” and “being on the front lines.” These experiences are not to be taken lightly, as each of them describes the working climate for leading diversity, equity and inclusion at colleges and universities. The experience can be isolating and takes a toll, especially when there is resistance and the tendency to maintain an organizational culture and campus climate comfortable with the status quo.

Christine A. StanleyChristine A. Stanley

So, what are the answers to these critical questions?

To begin this conversation, we thought it prudent to share our reflections on the issue of professional development of senior diversity officers, looking at the role of coaching, institutional leadership and national organizations. We come to these reflections from the lenses of two former senior diversity officers who have served in the role over the course of a total of 17 years at our respective institutions. We assumed these titled positions from tenured, privileged faculty positions at the institutions. We served and chose to return to the faculty because we were committed at the onset to not stay in the position beyond a certain amount of time and also wise enough to know and learn when we had done all that we could do for the institution.

Whether a college or university decides to use an executive search firm or only an internal search committee or some combination of the two, it is critical that serious consideration is given to the entire search process from beginning to end.  Both the hiring manager (usually the president and/or provost) and the executive search firm need to articulate, in no uncertain terms, how this cabinet level position will be in the best interests of the campus.

For example, some of these positions emerge from university strategic plans and forward thinking on the part of the university or college president.  Others, however, emerge out of campus unrest and/or campus demands of one sort or another. The executive search firm needs to understand what resources have been devoted to the work of forming and leading a successful team so that they can clearly articulate that to potential candidates for the position. How the senior diversity officer begins to engage with the cabinet, their own staff, faculty senate, student affairs, human resources and even boards of trustees, is often determined by the rationale for the position being created.

Search firms would also be wise to determine whether the senior diversity officer will be expected to oversee supplier diversity or other externally focused operations. Once the senior diversity officer is hired, the process of onboarding takes great care to ensure their success as a member of the institution’s executive leadership team.

While experienced senior diversity officers will most likely have definite ideas about how to proceed from day one, those in an inaugural situation or in a very different kind of institution from their previous one, would benefit greatly from using resources such as NADOHE, conferences, webinars and publications that attend to diversity issues in higher education.

Beyond the customary forms of support that comes from these resources and a network of seasoned colleagues, we have come to believe newly appointed senior diversity officers would also benefit from another level of support, uniquely chosen to address the realities of this leadership position.  Whether it goes by the name of executive mentoring, executive coaching or some combination of the two, this support provides an experienced diversity professional to serve as a sounding board, confidant and guide to the senior diversity officer.

Ideally, the mentor/coach and the institution would agree upfront to at least three sessions — spaced at three-month intervals of the first month, third month and six months. During these sessions, the mentor/coach’s task would be to determine the leadership style and strengths of the senior diversity officer, discuss the challenges of navigating the institution and provide a menu of options for problem solving based on the particular needs and realities of the campus.  The senior diversity officer remains accountable for their decisions in their leadership role, of course, but the executive mentor/coach can assist with the exploration and evaluation of nuanced, often complex options and competing demands of interconnected constituencies. What is critical about such an arrangement is that the mentor/coach ultimately assists the senior diversity officer, the hiring manager and the campus with developing the best opportunities for success for all concerned.

Executive search firms and university presidents would benefit from making a significant investment in providing an executive mentor/coach with a background in diversity and inclusion. Of course, the terms of engagement require great care, but the benefit of such a resource has the potential to be transformative for all concerned. Given the cost of conducting a cabinet level senior search in terms of time and money, the investment in this caliber of professional development at the outset not only maximizes the opportunity for the senior diversity officer to be successful, but for the campus to reap the benefits of the search.  Recognizing the need to manage expectations, providing executive coaching at these reasonable intervals, nevertheless provides much needed support at the senior level.

More than a compliance model, however, the goal of the mentor/coaching model is a compassionate model that focuses both on the needs of the institution and the personal/professional aspirations of the leader as an intentional change agent and thought leader.  According to a 2019 report in the Harvard Business Review Press, by R. Boyatzis, M. Smith and E. Oosten, such a model helps people “in positions of influence to build developmental relationships … within their team and organizations.”

Ultimately, providing an executive mentor/coach for newly appointed senior diversity officers is a form of equipping them for the challenging task of navigating the complex work and role in the evolving landscape of higher education through the lens of diversity, inclusion and equity. As senior diversity officer positions become more challenging than ever and as our campuses become more diverse than ever, this level of investment in the name of diversity, inclusion and equity is one worth making.

Dr. Marilyn S. Mobley, is professor of English and African American studies and former vice president for inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and Dr. Christine A. Stanley, is professor of higher education, vice president and associate provost for diversity emerita, and holder of the Ruth Harrington Chair in educational leadership at Texas A&M University.

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