The role of the chief diversity officer (CDO) in higher education continues to evolve into a position of increasing authority and one central to university leadership. However, these professionals are faced with myriad challenges that are political in nature. These issues are characterized by L.G. Bolman and T.E. Deal in their book Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. The political frame they discuss assumes that organizations are coalitions of individuals and interest groups who lobby, bargain, jockey, and negotiate for limited human and financial resources, as well as unlimited power and authority.
As CDOs go about exercising the duties of their role, they should be mindful of five political situations to avoid or at the very least, mitigate, lest they risk triggering a land mine unknowingly.
Role Conflict The university has many constituents with divergent concerns. The CDO is one of few university administrators, aside from the president, who interacts with these constituents on a regular basis. As CDOs execute the duties of their position, they must stay mindful that they need to balance the roles of advocate and administrator.
On the one hand, CDOs are expected to advocate on behalf of the university’s diverse constituents, such as an LGBTQ faculty and staff council, a student veteran committee, or an African American alumni group. Each of these groups adds value to the university, and each has individual concerns that it voices to the CDO to address with university leadership. A good outcome would be that the university president acknowledges receipt of the concerns; the optimal outcome would be that grievances are addressed and resolved by the university.
On the other hand, the CDO represents the administrative and leadership structure of the university. This is a delicate balancing act. If CDOs lean too far on the advocacy side, then their effectiveness as stewards of their universities is called into question, and if their advocacy does not meet the expectations of the diverse constituents they serve, then they appear untrustworthy and indifferent. Therefore, as they advocate on behalf of different constituents, they must always remember that there are limits.
Identity Politics From my experience, diversity is often viewed as a racialized proposition. Publicly, diversity is broadly defined as an effort to achieve inclusion. Privately, it is wrapped in a tacit agreement that race is the order of the day.
As a former chief diversity officer who is black, I was faced with this dichotomous situation daily. When I entered into a conversation about diversity, I was cognizant that my race might color the conversation. With a black person or audience, I often felt as if my role was viewed as one that would lift the veil of racism on campus. When talking to a white person or audience, I sensed as if my role was viewed as the administration’s champion for black students or, in effect, the token black administrator. And when I was talking to an LGBTQ audience, I felt as if my role was viewed as a symbol of empty promises regarding their marginalized status on campus. CDOs are supposed to represent the concerns and interests of all constituents on their campus; therefore, they must be fully aware of how their own intersectionality can affect their perceived agenda.
The ‘Unofficial’ Diversity Officer Colleges and universities have rich histories of working to create more diverse, inclusive, and equitable academic environments. As CDOs transition from one institution to another, they would be wise to map the historical context of diversity and inclusion on campus. Tracing an institution’s history will unearth valuable artifacts that can link past efforts to future successes. Another benefit of this kind of discovery is that it will allow them to shine a light on those colleagues who have been working tirelessly on diversity and inclusion efforts long before they walked onto campus. These trailblazers have deep knowledge of the institution, and many are trusted by senior administrators. They can end up being a CDO’s biggest advocate, as well as his or her biggest detractor.
Of this group, CDOs must be mindful of the “unofficial” diversity officer. This is a person who has longevity, the ear of the president and or provost, and is perceived as a superstar among his or her colleagues on campus. These people are the ones most others go to regarding matters of diversity and inclusion, despite diversity and inclusion not being their primary role or function. One would hope that they would be great colleagues for the incoming CDO, but the outcome is usually not positive. Although these people do not hold any formal title in the diversity space, their social and political capital is vast, affording them unparalleled influence over the incumbent’s work in an unquestioned manner. Gaining these people as colleagues is key to not being undermined at every turn in the organization. However, in the event that relationship is not established, the CDO will need to increase his or her credibility and deepen relationships within the institution in order to mitigate the influence these people have over senior administrators.
Centralized Leadership within a Decentralized Structure Diversity and inclusion should be the responsibility of everyone within the university. This statement, although true, can be problematic for CDOs. Indeed, everyone within an institution should feel an obligation to break down barriers of injustice and inequity. Everyone should have an abiding desire to create inclusive spaces where individuals can be their authentic selves.
In principle, this notion aligns with the decentralized nature of higher education. By looking at a university’s organizational chart, a CDO may feel extremely optimistic knowing he or she has a legion of collaborators — constituents ranging from student affairs, the provost’s office, human resources, alumni affairs, and the office of admissions to the individual colleges and the graduate school. In theory, these colleagues should all be helping the CDO shoulder the responsibility of this work with a shared vision.
In practice, though, the notion of collaboration is like the wind — always felt but never touched — which is typical in higher education politics. In a decentralized organizational structure, there is no true incentive for collaboration. As is often the case, departments wrestle with each other for the largest share of the general fund budget, and often, individual diversity efforts are not funded to capacity.
Interestingly, if one looks at the resource allocation for diversity and inclusion across the institution, one finds that these efforts are substantially funded as a whole. The role of the CDO is to provide a central, unifying diversity and inclusion vision for the university at large. Still, at times, achieving that outcome can be daunting when the CDO is faced with colleagues who put personal power and influence or group affiliation over the good of the university.
When faced with a competitive and, sometimes, combative culture, CDOs should listen with empathy for opportunities to present themselves as a resource to colleagues. They should roll up their sleeves, get in the trenches alongside their colleagues, and carry the water of change with them.
Transforming Data Into an Institutional Narrative
I recall giving a presentation to my institution’s board of visitors on the status of our strategic diversity plan, after being with the university for just five months. My colleagues had advised me that the board liked to see a lot of facts and figures, so I was provided all types of data on students, faculty, and staff. As I prepared for the presentation, I asked my colleagues who had worked closely on the diversity plan prior to my arrival on campus if we had any context for the numbers. I wanted to know what the data meant. I wanted to know the student experiences that would give life to and help make sense of the data. But that type of information was not provided. I knew in my gut that this was a bad move.— to present data without context, without meaning, without a narrative.
At the end of the presentation, I was asked the one question that I didn’t want to be asked but that I knew, if I were in the audience, I would have asked: “So what does this mean?” My response — crickets. I was the proverbial deer in headlights. The lesson here for CDOs is to never present data without providing context, and more important, always present an institutional narrative with the data.
As CDOs work to transform data into an institutional narrative for their campus, here are 10 questions to consider that may help throughout the process:
● Does your campus have a narrative of inclusion? If so, who shares that narrative (students,
alumni, senior leaders, board members, advancement professionals, diversity and inclusion offices, and so on)?
● How is your campus’s narrative of inclusion woven into its narrative of excellence?
● How is qualitative and quantitative data used to create and articulate your institution’s
● What does successful diversity and inclusion collaboration look like in your institution and
how does it advance student success?
● How does your institution empower and engage students in the process of creating an
inclusive campus environment?
● How has your university constructively harnessed the emotion and energy of students who
have expressed feelings of exclusion on campus?
● Do your espoused values of diversity and inclusion align with your current actions? If so, in
● How does your university map diversity programs across the institution?
● How does your university leverage the curriculum to introduce students to concepts of
social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion?
● What institutional structures on your campus support diversity, equity, and inclusion?
William T. Lewis Sr., PhD, is a former CDO, as well as the founder and principal member of ZeroIN HR Solutions, LLC. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board and the co-author of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Chief Diversity Officer Survey. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org.