When Glendell Jones Jr. became the 17th president of Henderson State University six years ago, few watchers in higher education circles saw his ascendancy as a shift in the profile of college presidents.
As noteworthy as it was that he was the first African-American to serve as president or chancellor of a non-historically black college or university in Arkansas, less noted was another position he’d once held that is increasingly viewed as a possible path to the presidency: executive assistant to the chancellor for diversity initiatives.
Several other former college administrators who’ve served as chief diversity officers, or CDOs -- a now common catchall term for positions such as vice chancellor for diversity and climate, vice president for institutional diversity, dean of diversity and academic engagement, and vice president for strategic and diversity initiatives -- have become college or university presidents in recent years.
And as the list grows, some people are starting to describe, albeit cautiously, what is happening as a trend.
“I’m being somewhat judicious about my terminology, but there have been more than a few CDOs over the last five to seven years that have risen to chief of institutions of higher education,” said Archie W. Ervin, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, or NADOHE. “But I think it can accurately be seen as a trend.”
Ervin reeled off a list of names of former CDOs who are now leading institutions.
Jamel Santa Cruze Wright became president of Eureka College in July. Shirley M. Collado became Ithaca College’s president during that same time, as did Gregory Vincent, who became president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges but has since resigned. Juan Sánchez Muñoz was named president of the University of Houston Downtown earlier last year, and Cheryl Davenport Dozier became the president of Savannah State University in 2011.
Nancy “Rusty” Barceló, who is known nationally for her diversity work in higher education, became president of Northern New Mexico College even earlier than any of the other recent appointments. She served in that position from 2010 until 2015.
“This role has evolved over the last 10 to 12 years as one of the most challenging and enriching university work that they are engaged in,” Ervin, who is also vice president for institute diversity at Georgia Tech, said of the CDO’s job. “Issues of diversity, equity and inclusion permeate all sectors of the institutional structure: student affairs, academic affairs, student support. The position requires that you intersect across the university and these traditional silos, across the spectrum of what we traditionally think of as divisions of the university. It provides a bird’s-eye view and training for leadership that is second to none.”
This was the case with Wright of Eureka College. She began thinking about becoming a college president after completing her doctorate in communication studies in 2004. She assumed she’d have to follow a traditional academic path to get there: becoming head of a department or program -- she was interested in residence life -- then dean of students or something equivalent, then provost. A longtime mentor told her there were various routes to the presidency and urged her not to think of just one fixed model.
“I didn’t believe him,” she said, “but he was right.”
In 2014 Wright arrived at the small Christian liberal arts college in Eureka, Ill., where the most famous alum is President Reagan, with an academic background largely in public relations, media studies and strategic and intercultural communications and competence. Her first administrative position at a university was as a communications specialist for academic and student affairs at her undergraduate alma mater, Missouri Western State University.
She started at Eureka as a special assistant to the then president and was in charge of strategic and diversity initiatives. Although the position was already a cabinet-level position, her title was changed a year later to vice president for strategic and diversity initiatives. Her responsibilities included updating the college’s strategic plan, helping review and revise its hiring practices, overhauling policy and processes on sexual discrimination, and establishing community partnerships.
The college’s board appointed her interim president on July 1, 2016, and selected her as the permanent president last November, making her the first woman and African-American to lead the 163-year-old institution.
“There’s no question in my mind that overseeing the strategic planning for the college was critical and chief in the mind of board members in deciding to make me president,” she said. “We went through a very successful process of implementing the strategic plan.”
Wright said her tenure as interim occurred during “a very challenging year.” State lawmakers did not pass a budget at a time when nearly 50 percent of Eureka students qualified for state and federal aid. There was belt-tightening and budget cuts, but no large scale layoffs or furloughs. And all of this occurred as representatives of the Higher Learning Commission surveyed the campus for accreditation purposes.
“There were major, major changes that could have set us back if we were a different type of campus community,” she said.
Societal and political shifts have also contributed to the increased demand for CDOs, said Ben Reese, vice president for institutional equity and chief of diversity for Duke University and its health system.
“I think the job is changing because the environment in the academy and across the country is changing,” he said. “All those changes impact the academy more broadly in terms of the CDO.”
As a result, college administrators are managing an increasing array of complex issues, whether it’s responding to changes in U.S. immigration policy affecting undocumented students, making tuition more affordable for students from low-income families, meeting the academic needs of first-generation students or addressing student demands for more diverse faculty and academic programs.
Administrators must also assure their campuses are sensitive to issues having to do with sexual orientation, gender parity in faculty appointments and tenure, and the free speech rights of disparate groups of students at a time of heightened social polarization.
“When I think of some of the major shifts in higher ed in the last decade, the skills needed fit into many of the competencies of our chief diversity officers,” Reese said.
Duke was among the institutions that created the role of CDO early on. When Reese arrived there 21 years ago, he was an assistant to the vice provost for black affairs. After the provost left, university administrators “thought it was wise to think institutionally about issues of difference more broadly” and expand the portfolio of the diversity officer. His position was upgraded to vice president in 2003.
Still, some people wonder whether the increased visibility of CDOs-turned-college presidents, many of them people of color, has made some members of the academy uncomfortable, or upset academic traditionalists.
Both Shirley Collado of Ithaca College and Gregory Vincent, formerly of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, were subjects of separate, widely publicized but anonymous email campaigns questioning their professional and personal backgrounds -- and thus their qualifications to be president of their respective universities.
Ithaca’s Board of Trustees stood by Collado, who during the interview process for the president’s job told board members about an sexual abuse allegation made against her by a person she once counseled as a trauma mental health therapist. Collado said she did not commit the acts alleged.
Vincent, who is African-American, resigned after allegations that he plagiarized parts of his 2004 doctoral dissertation by using lengthy direct quotations from other works without proper attribution. The passages were not enclosed in quotation marks but did appear in paragraphs with parenthetical citations to the original works. Many of his defenders saw the distribution of the anonymous reports about his dissertation as racially motivated.
One Facebook commenter listed Vincent’s qualifications and argued that his credibility was being questioned “because of a few sentences in his dissertation” written before computerized plagiarism-detection tools. The commenter said the situation reflected institutional racism.
“I have not made a firm conclusion that this is the case, but it has crossed my mind and I’m sure the mind of others who are aware of the career path of those who ascend to the presidency,” said Ervin of NADOHE. “Anonymous allegations have been made about other institutional leaders; this just happens to be about CDOs.”
Reese, a co-founder of NADOHE, was hesitant to characterize the motivations behind the anonymous allegations, or to call them a pattern.
“I wouldn’t say it’s related to diversity and I hope it is not,” he said, “but it is a commentary on our cultural climate. People are appropriately or inappropriately scouring through every aspect of people’s backgrounds, and once it gets into the domain of social media, it’s out there.
“There’s certainly some pushback in parts of the country at the very idea that these positions are being created or expanded,” he said of CDO jobs. “As some people predict they will be eliminated or integrated into the general fabric of the institution, there are new positions being created every year.
“I think the academy in general has been very accepting and supportive of this role and sees the value of CDOs. I’ve been here for this length of time, through three presidents, because I’ve experienced their strong support.”
Damon Williams, founder of the Center for Strategic Diversity Leadership and Social Innovation, said although more CDO positions are being created at colleges across the country, the vast majority are not at the executive level and often don’t have a universitywide mandate, or the full backing of the administrative leadership or trustees of their respective universities.
The center counted 300 CDO positions nationally, “but after intensive analysis, we only found 100 that were in senior-most level roles,” Williams said.
“We’re definitely trending toward these positions becoming more permanent, but I think there’s still inconsistency in how those roles are designed,” he said.
Colleges are “still not putting enough rigor in the design of the job,” he said, nor are they adequately budgeting for the role, giving it the broad mandate needed to have a tangible influence on campus, or ensuring that it involves campuswide collaboration and partnerships with academic departments or programs, among other things.
Williams said making CDOs members of college presidents’ cabinets is great, “but giving them the resources and the ability to be effective and catalyze change on campus is more important. Otherwise these CDOs are little more than symbolic figureheads.
“In the future if institutions make strong investments in those roles and position these officers to be real players on campus, to have defined budgets and a clear role influencing policy, to be in on discussions at a high level, this will provide our nation’s campuses more leaders poised to lead in a world that is more ethnically, culturally, religiously and sexually diverse,” Williams said.
“The world is changing,” he said. “Diversity and inclusion is a priority as never before. We need more presidents that bring a depth of experience because that’s the institution of today and tomorrow. We currently have a presidential community that is not prepared.”
And the path from CDO to president remains narrow, complex and rare, he said.
“Only a very few are prepared to walk that path, and only a few institutions can see those individuals as viable candidates for the presidency,” he said. “The classic pathway is still through the provost job, and anyone outside the traditional pathway is often seen as an outlier.
“Oftentimes university search committees can’t see CDOs as presidents unless they have something else in their portfolio,” he said. “The people who made the leap had hybrid portfolios; they tended to have very, very strong diversity and inclusion portfolios and something else in their portfolios that further positioned them for the presidency.”
Wright, the president of Eureka, agreed and said she would advise other CDOs who want to become presidents to “expand your portfolio of experience as much as you can.”
“Colleges will want more and more people with CDO experience but with other types of experience as well,” she said.
She said it mattered to her that she wasn’t brought to Eureka during a period of strife or controversy over diversity and inclusion issues.
“It wasn’t a reaction to a major incident. It was not part of an effort to quiet and calm the waters and walk the campus through some of those things,” she said. “I was impressed with that. They proactively sought out a person that they hoped could oversee and help coordinate the effort for increasing the racial and ethnic presence and programs on campus.
“I appreciated that I wasn’t walking into a buzz saw and that people weren’t up in arms. People were a lot more open and willing to have a conversation; the buy-in was there and it made things a lot easier, and I think that’s key.”