The conclusion of the Obama era intensified the urgency for the pursuit of social, racial, and equity reforms. Citizens from all demographic groups — religious, socio-economic, and more — have rallied and erupted in protest across the country, all with varying demands. These demands are not confined to the U.S., but are an international cry. Among the many heard across the world, one message aimed at higher education rang loud and clear: To be competitive in the global market, as President Barack Obama said in 2009, we need to confer more degrees, especially to underrepresented populations.
One outstanding impetus of the Obama administration was that institutions of higher education should serve as conduits to meet citizens’ demands. Yet, even with continued protests and mass gatherings across the country, universities have gained little ground in providing salient experiences for underrepresented populations, and according to Education Trust, the graduation achievement gap continues to widen.
The response of many universities has been to bridge this gap by establishing the position of chief diversity officer (CDO). A 2016 study conducted by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) reported that “77 percent of the 196 respondents [were] considered part of the executive/ administrative staff within their institutions.” However, despite this influx of CDOs, progress toward authenticating the expertise of diversity leadership is still very controversial. Consequently, the intended progress of Obama’s appeal is still not moving at the pace it should be in terms of infusing the form, function, and framework of the CDO role into higher education. This lack of progress has also meant that work to be completed by the CDO evolved significantly faster than the development of professional standards for the job. Now, with the Trump administration at the reins, the role of the CDO is in need of a paradigm shift to ensure excellence in diversity initiatives that address not only public angst, but also the systems that produce concerns about globally unpreparedness
INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine sponsored the CoopLew National Survey on CDO Attitudes, Workplace Perceptions, and Skill Applications, a crucial research initiative designed to study how well-equipped CDOs are to function in a post-Obama era and within the context of the Trump administration’s economic policies — what I call “Trumponomics.” Previous efforts to define and frame CDO work set the stage for introductory form and function, but the evolution of diversity as a term, a social paradigm, and an imperative for excellence has made the role like a palimpsest — written over, scratched out, and highlighted for the sake of improving visionary and specific competencies and principles. Regardless of what’s been written about the role to date, few studies, if any, focus on the CDO’s perception of diversity administration from lived experience — which begs to be completed with all the candor possible. With this in mind, the CoopLew research mandates a new look at American universities from the perspective of those who wear the badge of “chief” regarding diversity, amidst social, relational, political, equity, and educational conundrums.
In anticipation of the national release of this next-level research, a few nuggets of the CoopLew findings are provided here as a prelude to discussions about the critical work completed by CDOs at all types of institutions. It is a prep step for advancing national diversity thought capital and conversations that are surely on the horizon in the Trump era but that urgently need to begin today.
An unprecedented response rate — 263 CDOs, to be specific — to the CoopLew survey validated the premise that “lived CDO experiences” was a topic begging for discovery and discussion. The survey allowed respondents to reply from the perspective of either their current CDO position or that of their most recent CDO position. It contained relevant questions broken down into 10 sections that correlate to CDO relationships, expectations, resources, job satisfaction, skill utilization, and perceptions of inclusion. There is undoubtedly much more to come, as data is still being reviewed. The following extractions are but a sneak peek at what’s around the corner for CDOs on the stormy road to change in 2017 and beyond.
Expectations of the Current Job While “top-down” administration is the norm for higher education, data show that CDOs believe this is not true when it comes to modeling diversity. Of respondents who based their answers on their current role, 72 percent agreed or strongly agreed that accountability for modeling organizational diversity behaviors is expected to begin within the office of the CDO.
This finding could have profound effects on discussions between university chief executive officers (CEO) and CDOs. Clarity of expectations involving what is officially delegated and what the CEO should demonstrate begs for distinction if accountability and reciprocity are to flow smoothly from one executive to another. In addition, on campuses where CDOs carry the torch for modeling diversity, the paradigm shift from “centralized resource” to “authorized source” may need to be expressly and publicly consented to, especially by peers whose traditional sense of “top-down” does not include a CDO. Also, because CEOs and their entire office must model diversity as publicized in an institution’s mission and aspirational addresses, detailing expectations to the CDO will not only set a precedent for new paradigm shifts in diversity administration, but will also establish a truer meaning of “top-down” at the institution.
Satisfaction at the Previous Job Forty-two percent of respondents who based their answers on their previous CDO role disagreed or strongly disagreed that their reasons for leaving their previous institutions were due to matters of salary. Similar perspectives were aligned regarding campus environment (43 percent) and family obligations (65 percent).In addition, each category held unconfirmed (neutral) percentages of 29, 21, and 21 percent, respectively.
With common qualifiers off the table as majority-confirmed reasons for turnover, concern about the quality of CDO workplace interactions may be on the rise in 2017. Discussions about what CDOs need to feel safe and protected while navigating political, community, peer, and student uprisings may lend themselves well toward moving the needle away from early or unexpected turnover. While the campus environment in general was identified as the culprit behind most CDO turnovers (35 percent), more begs to be discovered about CDOs’ lived experiences from the seat of their offices and from hallway conversations that frame the environment. Moreover, CDOs’ preferred workplace conditions should be a topical discussion to differentiate from challenges such as limited resources and infrastructures perceived to impede progress to strained relationships, which culminate in the loss of talent for an institution.
Underutilized Skills of the Trade More than 25 percent of respondents confirmed that they do not use the skill “fostering authentic and relevant international exchanges.” Another 22 percent were undecided about whether they used the skill or not.
One skill soon to be on the forefront for CDOs is the ability to interact with and unite diverse populations. With 25 percent indicating non-usage and 22 percent undecided about their usage of this skill, it is clear that nearly half the CDO population may not engage in fostering authentic and relevant international relations — at least to a point where this can be confirmed. Thus, preparation for using this critical skill to maximize resilience against social storms needs to be a top priority. The resulting 41 percent of CDOs who reported executing this skill in the field conveys a dismal perspective on how institutions will deal with current divides between ethnic, religious, and international groups, as well as the LGBTQ community, now and in the future. Considering the rise in suicide rates and palpable fears and anxieties, CDOs will need to ramp up this skill as early as yesterday. A related piece of data from the CoopLew survey suggests that CDOs’ skill to influence what is taught about international and diversity circumstances at their institutions may evolve more acutely to influence who is teaching, should international relations become more strained as the Trump administration unfolds.
These nuggets of lived CDO experiences, along with other findings from the CoopLew survey, have the potential to invoke some of the most crucial conversations in CDO history. Results of these discussions may very well shape future CDO job descriptions, resource allocations, staff support, and even rationale for CDOs to transition to institutions where people “get it.” The data clearly indicate the need for a renewed appeal to bring about a paradigm shift for the role of CDOs — one that identifies them as change agents — and perhaps sooner than we think. In fact, experience as a CDO may become a preferred expertise on the pathway to university presidency. Presently, there remains much concern about the CDO’s development process and the latitude afforded to those whose skills are both largely untapped and unknown to CEOs and other would-be supporters of campus-wide diversity leadership.
Watch for the national release of the CoopLew National Survey on CDO Attitudes, Workplace Perceptions, and Skill Applications via webinars and at the 2017 NCORE conference.
Ken D. Coopwood Sr., PhD, is the vice president for strategic diversity and infrastructure for Viewfinder™ Campus Climate Surveys, a sister company of INSIGHT Into Diversity. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. To contact Dr. Coopwood, email firstname.lastname@example.org. William T. Lewis Sr., PhD, is an adjunct faculty member at Salem College, a former CDO, and the founder and principal member of ZeroIN HR Solutions, LLC. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. To contact Dr. Lewis, email email@example.com.