Standards for a Diversity Leader

Group aims to define the qualities needed in a position becoming more common in higher education.

October 6, 2014
Benjamin Reese Jr.

Assistant provost for diversity. Assistant to the president for institutional diversity and equity. Vice president for inclusion and multicultural engagement. Whatever institutions choose to call them, chief diversity officers are one of the fastest-growing administrative positions. Charged with promoting diversity among faculty and staff in a less compliance-based manner than their equal opportunity counterparts, many of these officers are the first to hold such positions at their colleges and universities -- or are the first to hold such positions as they have been elevated in the college hierarchy.

So while lots of chief diversity officers are highly qualified, the pioneering nature of their work has made for some inconsistency in their backgrounds and how they do the job. But it’s something the profession is working to address, including through forthcoming standards about what makes an effective chief diversity officer.

“We have seen announcements of selections for chief diversity officers in which we’ve failed to see any connection to or background in diversity or equal opportunity,” said Shirley Wilcher, executive director of the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity (formerly the American Association for Affirmative Action). “If they’re there to simply put a face on one’s diversity policy, then I guess it doesn’t matter what one’s field is."

On the other hand, Wilcher continued, "I would hope that you’d want to select an individual who has some appreciation for the legal context in which they work. As the profession evolves, I hope there will be some standards.”

Such standards are forthcoming. They’re set for publication this December by the National Association for Diversity Officers in Higher Education, which formed in 2006 to help shape the emerging profession. It has continued to grow, with some 30 institutions adding chief diversity officers in the five years leading up to one 2013 study.

Benjamin Reese Jr., vice president and chief diversity officer at Duke University, and president of the national diversity officers’ association, didn’t share details but said the forthcoming standards will address “areas of knowledge and skills that are important to the role.” A code of professional ethics is also planned. In addition to those documents, the national organization recently launched a fellows program to help mentor early-career chief diversity officers. Both current fellows have strong backgrounds in diversity and inclusion in the academy.

Reese said it was his sense “that today’s [chief diversity officers] are even more knowledgeable than a decade ago.” He said many chief diversity officers have Ph.D.s in higher education administration, and others have social science degrees. Others still have law degrees and have worked in higher education compliance or diversity offices.

But the job itself remains somewhat inconsistent. While many chief diversity officers have full-time, cabinet-level positions, others wear the title on top of another, primary role – or several. Some chief diversity officers are also equal opportunity officers, charged with enforcing and/or reporting on their colleges’ diversity plans and relevant antidiscrimination employment laws. Some are also human resources officers. Others still are coordinators for Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, or work in admissions, or any combination of the above.

That can be problematic. Critics say that having one person be in charge of all diversity functions – both enforcement and proactive promotion – makes the chief diversity role that of a police officer instead of one who promotes positive change. And critics says that housing diversity officers in human resources or admissions separates them from the faculty they should be working among, and saddles them with too much work to be effective.

And even though chief diversity officers increasingly come to their jobs with relevant theoretical, practical and legal expertise, appointees’ backgrounds still vary. Wilcher said the only consistent qualification seems to be a Ph.D. That’s important, she said, since faculty members will want to work on diversity issues as they relate to tenure, instruction and curriculum with someone they regard as a peer. But it shouldn’t be the only requirement, she added.

Wilcher said that many chief diversity officers, regardless of their backgrounds, end up doing excellent work. But she said she'd once met an officer, for example, who wasn't even familiar with Title VI of the Civil Rights of Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. Wilcher, who was deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs during the Clinton administration, said it isn't necessary for diversity officers to have a compliance officer's level of understanding of such laws. But a working knowledge of the legal framework for their work is crucial.

Similarly, Wilcher said, it's important for diversity and compliance officers to have a good relationship.

Myron Anderson, a tenured professor of educational technology at the Metropolitan State University of Denver who has been the full-time associate to the president for diversity for six years, and Percy Morehouse, his longtime equal opportunity counterpart, said they work well together as a team.

Greatly simplified, said Anderson, it’s a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic. For example, Anderson said he can sometimes resolve informal equal opportunity complaints through discussions, so that a formal complaint is never filed. Sometimes, of course, complaints occur and Morehouse handles them. But Anderson -- whose academic interests include inclusive excellence -- works everyday to promote a positive climate through direct and indirect outreach and education. He assesses progress with detailed climate surveys.

It's an effective strategy that benefits faculty, staff, students and the institution in the long run, Anderson said, noting data suggest that investing in a diversity officer provides a significant return over time, in the form of reduced litigation costs.

Morehouse said he’s seen the evolution of equal opportunity work up close in his 28 years at Metro State. He started out as the director of equal opportunity and affirmative action, and for many years also worked on promoting diversity in a kind of pre-chief-diversity-officer role. But eventually a conflict of interest emerged, he said.

“How could I, as the [equal employment opportunity] officer deal with all the legal issues as well as conduct investigations, as well as at the same time deal with conflict resolution as it relates to climate?” he said.

So Morehouse worked with Metro State’s president and Board of Trustees to create a chief diversity officer position that overlapped with equal opportunity, but had distinct duties. The job centered on low-level conflict resolution among employees, curriculum design to promote diversity and inclusion, and faculty outreach and education. Both officers would remain on the president’s cabinet.

Anderson said that last point has been key, since it’s relatively common elsewhere for chief diversity officers to displace the equal opportunity officer from the president's advisory circle; he or she typically is moved into human resources or another part of the administration. That can create conflict between the two offices, whose success depends on each other, he said.

The chief diversity officer said he and Morehouse have been effective at advocating for diversity together, such as when they secured a chunk of new faculty orientation for a discussion of diversity and what on-campus resources are available.

Morehouse agreed. “If you’re going to have two officers, they need to be able to work together to diversify the institution," he said.


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