Questions linger for chief diversity office on campus

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Over the past year, college campuses have made evident how vital concerns about diversity and equity are in higher education.

While many institutions have offices or administrators charged with overseeing diversity efforts, the creation of what’s¬†commonly referred to as Chief Diversity Office has received little attention.

A new study considers the formation and evolution of such offices at institutions of higher education. Eugene Parker, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Kansas, examined how Chief Diversity Offices came to be at two American research-intensive universities and how the roles of the offices compare to what is known about diversity offices in higher education.

“One might infer that broad or indistinct conceptions of diversity produce indistinct roles and functions of chief diversity offices.”

Parker found that while there is no standard for such offices they do share many of the same traits and challenges.

An unclear vision

Previous research has shown that offices dedicated to overseeing diversity efforts are often created in response to some sort of racial incident. In the case of the two universities in Parker’s study, referred to as Southern and Northern Eastern Universities, the chief diversity offices were not in fact formed in response to an incident but in response to ongoing awareness of an unfavorable climate for equality.

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Following the larger trend in higher education, the two institutions did not have an immediately clear vision of who should oversee the diversity efforts on campus. “There are changing demographics on campuses and more people are paying closer attention to diversity,” Parker says. “Yet we don’t really know who should be overseeing diversity efforts or leading them. Across universities there is no standard. Some would say it’s everybody’s responsibility, while others would say having an executive helps by putting it in the hands of one leader.”

Nationally, the offices generally form at the urging of stakeholders on campus, as opposed to outside governing bodies. Generally the advocates come in the form of faculty or students. That was true of the universities in the study, with faculty being the main proponents.

Who’s the boss?

The lack of standards has also led to title, rank, pay, and duties of chief diversity officers being largely different from one campus to another. That was true of Southern and Northern Eastern Universities as well. One office was largely responsible for student success, while the other paid considerable attention to assessment. Previous research has shown that just over half of CDOs have affirmative action responsibilities and the study reflected that, as one of the two offices had such responsibilities.

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Both universities reported having a president that was receptive to diversity efforts and supportive of the office’s mission, matching national findings that supportive leadership aids in the formation of diversity offices. Nationally, reporting lines for such offices vary and that held true in Parkers’ study as well, as one CDO reported directly to the president while the other reported to a provost.

Previous research has suggested it is important for CDOs to report to a president, but that was not reflected in the findings, as both offices felt their offices were effective and their efforts were deemed important by university leadership. That suggests a university’s individual climate may be most important in determining appropriate reporting lines, Parker says. “We wanted to ask, ‘Is there a difference in sitting at the president’s table and a CDO who reported to some other administrator?'” Parker says. “We found that context matters in this question. Not reporting directly to the president seemed to work.”

Define ‘diversity’

Despite differences in duties, reporting lines and formation, both institutions reported budget trouble. Even though Northern Eastern University’s budget was nearly double that of Southern University, both Chief Diversity Officers said a lack of financial resources hindered their ability to fulfill their mission.

Above all, the lack of a consistent, coherent understanding of what diversity means is likely the biggest challenge to forming effective efforts to ensure effective efforts to ensure diverse and equitable experiences at American colleges and universities.

“The formation of a chief diversity office and the persistent unclear conceptions of diversity muddle the capacity of the office to realize its goals,” Parker writes. “One might infer that broad or indistinct conceptions of diversity produce indistinct roles and functions of chief diversity offices.”

Parker has presented findings from related diversity studies at the Association for Study of Higher Education and the American Educational Research Association conferences.

Source: University of Kansas