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Chief Diversity Officers: Different Models for Success

“Someone once told me diversity work wasn’t rocket science. If only it was that easy.”

That’s how Dr. Archie Ervin, associate provost and director of diversity and multicultural affairs at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, opened his presentation Monday at the Leadership Institute, sponsored by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.

At some institutions the Chief Diversity Officer has a limited staff and works collaboratively with other departments to achieve diversity goals while at others the diversity work is so integrated into the traditional academic structure the CDO has responsibility over several departments, from institutional research to student support, in what is called a ‘portfolio’ model. At some institutions or university systems, the work of the CDO is centralized. In some cases diversity work falls under academic affairs, others student affairs. Some CDOs have responsibility for diversity, but no real authority while some have the chancellor’s ear on diversity issues.

The role of a Chief Diversity Officer can be configured in so many different ways, NADOHE’s Leadership Institute sought to demystify and examine challenges and opportunities of the various configurations, before an audience of diversity officers and higher education administrators seeking to develop such a position.

Whatever the design, the CDOs who presented said it was essential to have the president’s or chancellor’s support and that includes their commitment to hold faculty and administrators accountable for achieving diversity benchmarks.

At UNC, Chapel Hill, Ervin said his department uses as many incentives as possible to ensure buy-in, but those tasked with carrying out diversity work are assessed for their accomplishments, or lack thereof.  Providing public reports about what departments are doing and not doing to further diversity goals is pretty effective as no one wants to appear to be lax in this department, said Ervin, who has responsibility over student recruitment and outreach, incorporating diversity training in all employee and student orientations and crisis management, among other things.

However, CDOs can expect to dodge bullets in what Ervin called the ‘politics of diversity.’

Dr. Micheal J. Tate, vice president of student affairs, equity and diversity at Washington State University, noted the importance of CDOs creating diverse streams of funding to ensure their work continues, particularly in tough budget times like those currently besetting higher education.

“This work costs money,” said Tate, noting that 75 percent of his budget is not state-funded, coming instead from student fees, grants and donations. “I spend 40 percent of my time in development,” he added.

Dr. Shirley Ramirez, vice president of institutional planning & community engagement at Lafayette College, said diversity work is an emerging field at private colleges, noting a group of CDOs at private colleges she helped found went from four members to 20 in a short period of time.

Ramirez said diversity has to be integrated into the core veins of the institution so that “it is not to be ignored” or considered “the topic of the day.”

“We have expertise, not just in diversity issues,” said Ramirez, whose responsibilities include overseeing her institution’s reaccreditation. She said the conversation over the role of the CDO should be reframed in the context of how to incorporate diversity into the “traditional ways in which the academy has functioned.” 

The NADOHE conference, held concurrently with the 91st annual American Council on Education convention at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., concludes Wednesday.

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