What Does a Chief Diversity Officer Actually Do?

Peter Wood

An article in the Commentary section of this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education caught our eye: “The Complex Mandate of a Chief Diversity Officer.” You’ve heard of them. They’re becoming quite common nowadays. But you may have wondered, “What does a chief diversity officer actually do?” The article authors, Damon A. Williams and Katrina C. Wade-Golden, tell us. Sort of. 

Here is their article, along with NAS’s comments in italics.

Perhaps more than any other top campus administrator, the chief diversity officer is a lightning rod for criticism. 

A lightning rod, eh? Well, in the interest of product safety, let’s test it with a few bolts. 

Of course, some people simply oppose efforts to increase access, equity, multiculturalism, and inclusion. But even people committed to diversity can object to the presence of these officers.

Let’s unpack that first sentence. Access, equity, multiculturalism, and inclusion…People do not “simply oppose” such ideas. For one thing, no reasonable officials in higher education are against fairness (assuming “equity” is a fancy word for fairness) and inclusion. To say that they “simply oppose” access, equity, multiculturalism, and inclusion is like saying “some people simply oppose kindness and honesty,” or other moral ideals that humans take for granted as good. It’s a way of ignoring the reasons why some people might not be thrilled about diversity officers.

For example, “access” means the ability to get in to college. Most people believe that there should be equal access to higher education, and that no one should be denied the opportunity because of discrimination. But the word “access” as Williams and Wade-Golden use it probably means more than that.   It has become a code word in the diversity industry for something like ‘overcoming institutional barriers, including those subtle obstacles that only diversicrats can discern.’ Instead of evoking the goal of keeping college admission open to all who are capable, “access” in this sense refers to recruiting students from particular groups, along with quotas, incentives, and special scholarships.

As to multiculturalism, many people have specific reasons for objecting to a worldview that sees everything through the context of racial and other identity differences. They disagree rather than “simply oppose,” and their disagreements often take the form of detailed and deeply informed criticisms of multiculturalist theory. Williams and Wade-Golden in this opening sentence signal that they do not intend to acknowledge the existence of these arguments, let alone answer them. 

Thus we have an immediate if incomplete answer to the question, “What does a chief diversity officer actually do?” The chief diversity officer ignores or trivializes any rational objections to the institutionalization of the diversity ideology.

The sentence assumes these four ideas to be transparent, transparently right, and “opposed” only by people who aren’t worth further notice. 

Some critics believe that hiring a chief diversity officer removes the responsibility for diversity and inclusion from the university's president, other leaders, faculty members, and the campus as a whole. The institution now has a "diversity messiah," who is singularly responsible for advancing campus-diversity efforts and is nothing more than a symbolic figurehead.

The metaphors seem a bit jumbled. But let’s keep this denial of the “messiah” status of the CDO in mind. 

Others believe that, in the interest of political correctness, the officer will encourage the admission of students who are not well qualified, and the hiring of faculty members whose scholarship does not meet the institution's standards. Many of those criticisms stem from an incomplete or misguided understanding of the context, mission, and role of the chief diversity officer.

We’re ready to be enlightened.

It seems likely that change and diversity will be permanent characteristics of the 21st century. 

Um, haven’t change and diversity been characteristics of every century? Rafael Heller said it best in an Inside Higher Education article that called academic reformers “unimaginative” in their endless appeals based on change and transformation:

Again and again, they dip into the very same rhetorical well, as if there were no means by which to inspire audiences but to speak of transformation, and no way to stir people to action but to warn them that they live in a time of great change (as though that couldn’t be said of every decade since the Mesozoic era), one that compels a response.

And as consumers of this sort of rhetoric, academics are far too easy to please. Journalists and politicians pride themselves on their ability to dissect the candidates’ slogans and bumper stickers. But college professors and provosts seem all too happy to take such language at face value, smiling sweetly at the latest call for transformation.

The rise of the global economy has led to corporations' seeking employees from different backgrounds and experiences who can work with and lead diverse groups. Social-science research reveals changing demographics and demonstrates the importance of diversity to learning and organizational performance.

Actually, it is yet to be proven that racial diversity lends educational benefits. Many have tried; nothing has been conclusive. And there is mounting evidence that the pursuit of diversity in some contexts produces distinctly negative educational results. Richard Sander’s studies of law school students who received racial preferences has given rise to the so-called “mismatch hypothesis,” to the effect that these students’ classroom performance, persistence in their programs, and passage rates on the bar exam all suffer relative to students of comparable qualifications who attend law schools without the aid of preferences. 

While Williams and Wade-Golden are certainly right that many companies now espouse the diversity doctrine, their claims about social science research are overstated. Most recently, we have seen Robert Putnam’s reluctant finding based on extensive research in communities across the U.S. that, “Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation…people living in diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.” We’ve also had the five-year study of four large American corporations led by Professor Thomas Kochan at MIT that demonstrated that most of the business rationales for diversity hiring rest on empty supposition.

So we have the second answer to the question, “What does a chief diversity officer actually do?” The chief diversity officer keeps those empty suppositions going by repeating them tirelessly and ignoring evidence that weighs against them.

Campus-diversity efforts are no longer important simply because they are morally right, a continuation of the civil-rights movement. 

Hmm. Campus-diversity efforts are morally right? This statement is a question-beggar. When and by what authority was it established that campus-diversity efforts are morally right? Having set out its own standards of right and wrong, diversity has become its own religion. Woe to the multiculturally immoral.

And another question: are campus-diversity efforts “a continuation of the civil-rights movement”? That depends which part of the civil rights movement. As Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, there were two phases of the movement: 

In its early days almost all the significant leaders, in spite of tactical and temperamental differences, relied on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution…The blacks were the true Americans in demanding the equality that belongs to them as human beings by natural and political right. This stance implied a firm conviction of the truth of the principles of natural right and of their fundamental efficacy within the Constitutional tradition…By contrast, the Black Power movement that supplanted the older civil rights movement—had at its core the view that the Constitutional tradition was always corrupt and was constructed as a defense of slavery. Its demand was for black identity, not universal rights. (Bloom 33)

The diversity movement most closely resembles the Black Power movement in that it seeks special services for members of identity groups. This is distinct from the pursuit of equality based on natural right, which is already in place in American higher education. Diversity efforts are the opposite of color-blind treatment. Instead, the movement sees only differences and defines people by them.

Diversity efforts are important because they are fundamental to quality and excellence in the world in which we live today. Moreover, diversity is more than a black-and-white binary; it now includes race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, nationality, religion, and a host of other dimensions.

Yes, lots of identity groups, but the one “dimension” of diversity that really ought to be at the center of higher education—the diversity of ideas—gets no mention here. The complex mandate of the chief diversity officer apparently doesn’t include advocating for the value of enlivening the campus with intellectual debate that fairly represents the spectrum of scholarly views across the disciplines.  

Indeed, if we apply that broad definition of diversity, an examination of many academic institutions shows dozens if not hundreds of offices, initiatives, programs, courses, and scholarships designed to reach ever-expanding institutional diversity goals. 

Yes—they’re everywhere and “ever-expanding.”   If a program doesn’t work, make it bigger.  

To maximize those efforts, the strategic leadership of a chief diversity officer is more important than ever.

One of the key findings of our research on the role of campus diversity officers is that no officer alone can singularly direct campus-diversity efforts; collaboration is essential. Anyone who envisions the officer as leading a cavalry charge like John Wayne is missing the importance of building a consensus and relationships.

An odd metaphor, but we agree that John Wayne would not be the first person we would cast in the movie version of Chief Diversity Officer. There is one John Wayne movie, however, that comes to mind. In John Ford’s grim classic, The Searchers (1956), Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate veteran who spends ten years relentlessly hunting down the Indians who killed his family and kidnapped his niece. Their relentless search for minorities puts a little of Ethan Edwards into every chief diversity officer.

Be that as it may, do we detect in Williams and Wade-Golden's confession that CDOs can’t do it alone the classic plaint of the bureaucrat in need of still more staff? If a program doesn’t work, make it bigger, part two.

While some officers may have several units under their direct authority, none has full responsibility for all academic hiring, curriculum development, and the myriad of other areas related to an institution's diversity agenda.

Imagine if they did have this kind of authority!  

The chief diversity officer's task is inherently integrative: to help the institution become more active in increasing diversity, whether the goal is defined in terms of increasing access, building international relationships, improving learning, or any of a number of other ways. And, of course, the typical officer works in an academic environment that is highly decentralized, extremely politicized, and rarely if ever changed through the actions of one woman or man.

This is sort of cute. Diversity officers, who are in fact drivers of an ideology that prizes racial grievance and ethnic antagonism, lay claim to “integration.” Except integration in this new sense doesn’t means racial integration; it means working the campus to ensure that the diversity doctrine is infiltrated into every activity.

The chief diversity officer takes steps that, over time, lead to change. Here are some examples.

  • Acting as a point person at the top tier of institutional leadership, the officer raises the visibility of the institution's diversity efforts; clarifies goals and assesses progress; and provides expertise on issues of access, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Leading campuswide committees and working groups on diversity involves the officer in a variety of services, like conducting surveys of the campus climate, developing cultural events for the campus and the surrounding community, and planning symposia centered on diversity.
  • The officer works to increase the number and improve the success of students and faculty and staff members from underrepresented groups by creating pilot initiatives, building collaborative relationships, helping to adopt national best practices, collecting and analyzing data, and designing new marketing and communication products. He or she also participates in the search for administrators and faculty members, perhaps expanding the pool of candidates by helping revise job descriptions and reminding search-committee members of the importance of institutional diversity.

We recently found one such job description, plus a list of recommended questions for interviewers to ask job applicants, in order to measure the candidate’s “level of concern or commitment” to “minority and women's issues and to issues involving the disabled and other groups requiring sensitive treatment.” We weren’t the only ones who saw these questions to be political litmus tests and inappropriate for a job interview.

  • Often the officer plays a key role in establishing campuswide sessions on diversity training and leadership development. Those sessions increase awareness of diversity and cultural competence among students, faculty members, administrators, and other staff members.

It’s safe to call “awareness of diversity” a vapid term. How can someone tell how much “awareness of diversity” students have? And how does one measure “cultural competence?”  So we have the third answer to the question, “What does a chief diversity officer actually do?” The chief diversity officer spins empty diversity jargon like grains of sugar in a cotton candy machine, until they come out in a cloud of glucose filaments that stick to everything. 

The officer may also help develop community-outreach programs that bring the diversity of the community onto the campus. 

  • Many officers reported to us that they use their institutions' formal accountability systems on the job, or are working to develop new ones. For instance, an officer might include cultural competence in all performance appraisals of administrators and staff members in his or her purview, advocate the inclusion of diversity achievements in performance reviews throughout the institution, outline diversity actions in annual reports and presentations to institutional leaders and governing boards, and develop demographic metrics to help campus units monitor and review their diversity.

Once again, in appraising cultural competence levels, what is the unit of measurement? The only way for faculty, staff and administrators to pass that test is to give parrot avowals of politically correct commitments. Why should university employees be required to have “diversity achievements” in the first place? It is a substance-less fad that replaces academic seriousness with identity politics.

  • Officers often work with faculty senates to develop new requirements for diversity in general-education courses, and with teaching centers on faculty-development initiatives to infuse diversity into other courses and make classroom dynamics more inclusive.

Campus diversity movements never confine themselves to areas outside the classroom. Diversity is found in all kinds of courses now, manifested variously in considerations of race, class, gender, and sexuality, as well as in talk of power, privilege, oppression, and justice. “Infuse” is an accurate word to describe how diversity officers flavor colleges with the nectar of their prescribed doctrines. 

As institutions consider what a chief diversity officer might do on their campuses, it is important to understand that the officers will succeed only in environments that are conducive to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Without supportive campus leaders, institutional readiness for change, and a commitment to long-term, systemic efforts and financial investments, the work of a chief diversity officer can have only limited impact.

As opposed to the unlimited impact of…what exactly?   Perhaps this should be passed over as merely poor writing, but the hint of gargantuan ambition warrants some notice. Every job in every enterprise is “limited” by the nature of things. Twice in this essay we get fleeting glimpses of a longing to surpass the limits. Williams and Wade-Golden deny that the CDO is a “messiah,” but the idea is apparently on their minds, and here they complain that, short of everyone hoisting the CDO aloft and chairing him through the quad, we can expect few results. 

The president, faculty, admissions, residence life, donors all have to emit a general feeling of “institutional readiness for change.” Calling for everyone’s participation makes it easy to discern those who decline to join in. Dissenters will get ousted in favor of yes-men, and those who remain will have their convictions scrutinized. The new university in Williams and Wade-Golden’s vision is a massive support system for the chief diversity officer.

Image: "cotton candy" by Roco Julie / CC BY

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