The CDO Role is Maturing

Guest post by Lucy Apthrop Leske and Oliver B. Tomlin, III

Today’s college or university Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) is more likely than not to have been at the forefront of establishing the diversity leadership role. In less than two decades, these groundbreakers have worked with senior leadership to move the CDO role from tactical to strategic. The successful diversity leader needs negotiating, diplomatic, communication, and analytical skills in addition to educational credentials, and CDOs continue to seek broader engagement and influence on their institutions’ strategic plans.

At Witt/Kieffer, we see increasingly that within our client organizations positions responsible for carrying out the strategic vision for diversity are at or near the C-suite level. The diversity role is changing and being filled by a new breed of leaders.

Last year, we decided it was time for a national CDO survey. We received responses from people who represented both public and private institutions. These provide a baseline of data regarding the CDO role, including what institutions can expect to see as they seek talented, skilled, experienced professionals to fill these important senior leadership roles. Here is what we learned:

1.      CDO reporting relationships, titles, and compensation vary from institution to institution. More than half of the respondents are members of their institution’s leadership team. Thirty-six percent report to the president and 20 percent report to the provost. Thirty-four percent report to other positions, including dean, chancellor and vice provost. Twenty percent hold an “assistant” title, such as assistant vice president, assistant dean, or assistant provost. Eighteen percent are director and 14 percent are vice chancellor or vice president. Compensation also varies considerably, from 27 percent earning less than $100,000 annually to 14 percent reporting annual income above $200,000.

2.      The word “diversity” is increasingly being replaced with “multicultural” on many campuses, reflecting a broader definition of inclusion and diversity that recognizes a more global society.

3.      CDOs come from a broad range of backgrounds and career tracks, including human resources, equal employment opportunity and academic affairs offices, student affairs, faculty, academic administration and enrollment/admissions. Other backgrounds include diversity positions in health care or the corporate sector, leadership consulting, diversity training, ministry and more.

4.      The work of today’s CDO is much more strategic and policy-oriented than in the past. Early CDOs focused on programming in student affairs, student recruitment or employment and affirmative action policies. Today’s universities increasingly recognize the strategic importance of a broadly inclusive campus community facilitated by a leader who is a member of the senior management team.

5.      The CDO’s reach into the organization is deepening. Responsibilities and functions assigned to today’s CDO include diversity strategic planning, diversity training, institutional research and/or campus climate surveys, multicultural student recruitment and financial aid policy, student programming, faculty recruitment and retention consulting and support, curriculum review, HR and affirmative action policies and diverse alumni relations.

6.      Most CDOs (69 percent) say that their presidents are engaged in their institution’s diversity strategic planning processes and diversity initiatives, and annual budgets for more than half exceed $300,000.

7.      Successful CDOs have specialized skill sets. Almost all of the respondents agreed on the important attributes a chief diversity officer must possess:

• the ability to influence the strategic plan of their institution (100 percent)

• the ability to engage senior administrative staff (99 percent)

• organizational leadership skills (99 percent)

• strategic planning and implementation (99 percent)

• public relations and communication skills (98 percent)

Our survey shows significant opportunity for growth in the field of diversity leadership, but as one foundation president summed it up: “There is still much work to be done in addressing issues related to diversity as a part of one’s career.” A more detailed overview of the CDO survey is available here.

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