Developing the Next Generation of Chief Diversity Officers in Higher Education

By Lucy Leske and Oliver Tomlin

The role of chief diversity officer within colleges and universities has blossomed and evolved over the years. It has gone from being a primarily tactical position to a strategic one, requiring a much more multifaceted skill set than in the past. “The successful diversity leader needs negotiating, diplomatic, communication, and analytical skills in addition to educational credentials,” we wrote following a 2011 national survey that our firm conducted of nearly 100 leading CDOs.

As the chief diversity officer position becomes fundamental to an institution’s strategic vision, it follows that there should be a greater emphasis on succession planning—that is, ensuring continuity in the role so that, if one CDO leaves, the torch is passed to another who can hit the ground running and build upon previous successes. This becomes more critical considering the fact that roughly half of the CDOs surveyed told us that they planned to leave their current positions within three years. One reason is that CDOs are attractive candidates to move up in the administrative ranks, even into presidential and provost positions.

As a follow-up to our 2011 survey, we recently conducted another focused on CDO succession planning, asking specific questions about whether chief diversity officers were grooming successors and taking steps to ensure continuity upon their eventual departure. We took the opportunity of the recent NADOHE 8th Annual Conference in San Diego to present our findings. We were joined on the podium by Marilyn Sanders Mobley, PhD, Vice President for Inclusion, Diversity & Equal Opportunity at Case Western Reserve University.

In advance of a full report to follow later this year, allow us to share some of our key slides and an overview of our findings:

As the chart below suggests, institutions are preparing for the future, though only 12 percent have a formal succession planning process.

What is your institution doing to ensure the continuity of the role of the CDO?

NADOHE slide 1

At most institutions, potential successors to the CDO role are identified on an ad hoc basis, whether through an informal internal process or through external recruitment. Only a few respondents suggested that CDO successors were identified formally, as part of institutional succession planning.

Are CDOs themselves doing enough to nurture the next generation? The graph below suggests that mentoring and other critical activities are indeed taking place, though they can certainly be increased across the board.

What are you personally doing to educate and transfer knowledge to the next generation of CDOs?

NADOHE slide 2

Among the expanding responsibilities that chief diversity officers in higher education must have today is to plan for their eventual exit. A good CDO must be on the lookout for his or her successor, and groom others to fill this role throughout academia as well. Institutions, too, must prioritize CDO succession planning so that the gains and accomplishments of one diversity leader are not lost in the transition to another.

About the Authors

Lucy Leske

Lucy Leske

Lucy Apthorp Leske is managing partner of Witt/Kieffer’s Higher Education practice; Oliver B. Tomlin, III is a senior partner serving the firm’s Higher Education and Healthcare practices.

Recommended CDO Development Resources

  • Anderson, J. A. (2008). Driving Change through Diversity and Globalization: Transformative Leadership in the Academy.  Sterling, VA: Stylus.

    Oliver Tomlin

    Oliver Tomlin

  • Martin, N.A. & Bloom, J.L. (2003). Career Aspirations & Expeditions: Advancing Your Career in Higher Education Administration.  Champaign, IL: Stipes.
  • Mobley, M. (McKenzie). (2002). Labor Above and Beyond the Call: A Black Woman Scholar in the Academy.  In S. Harley (Ed.), Sister Circle: Black Women and Work (pp.231-253).  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Seldin, P. & Higgerson, M.L. (2002).  The Administrative Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Improved Administrative Performance and Personnel Decisions.  Bolton, MA: Anker.
  • Williams, D. A. & Wade-Golden, K. (2013). The Chief Diversity Officer: Strategy, Structure and Change Management.  Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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