Leaders for All: Colleges and Universities Are Naming Chief Diversity Officers to Help Create Lasting Change

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THE NEW VICE PRESIDENT FOR DIVERSITY AND EQUITY WAS WORKING BEHIND THE scenes at the University of Virginia before his position even kicked in. A number of racial incidences had disturbed the Charlottesville campus in the early weeks of fall 2005, including epithets yelled out by pedestrians and people in cars, a slur scrawled on a student's message board, and the mistreatment of a black student at a fraternity party (beer was poured down the student's back, for one).

With a potential crisis in play, the administration's response needed to come from on high. President John Casteen III made a rare speech from the historic Rotunda and participated in a video shown at the start of the Homecoming game against Duke University (N.C.). One gesture became particularly visible: Black ribbons were distributed all over campus, including 50,000 before the Homecoming game at Scott Stadium. The ribbons created a sea of support for those who had been targeted by the incidences, a message of unity against intolerance.

Bill Harvey was behind the ribbon move, and it will not be the last time he casts broad strokes on UVA's canvas--or other leaders do so elsewhere. As the university's first vice president for diversity and equity, Harvey is among a growing group of chief diversity officers taking on new positions in higher education.

In the last few years, several colleges and universities have placed diversity officers at the highest levels, reporting directly to provosts and presidents and ensuring that diversity and equity are real priorities. In 2005, the University of California, San Diego, brought on its first chief diversity officer in the form of Jorge Huerta, associate chancellor. The University of South Dakota pinned its hopes on Bruce King, assistant vice president for Academic Affairs and campus diversity officer. Harvard University appointed Evelynn Hammonds as its first senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity. Several other schools launched high-level searches.

From his perch at Kent State University (Ohio), Steve Michael has observed the groundswell. Michael, vice provost for diversity and academic initiatives, keeps a database of diversity officers at IHEs around the country. The list of about 500 names divides into chief diversity officers, senior diversity officers, and diversity officers. These days, about 15 to 20 percent of the database falls into the CDO category, says Michael. "The top level has grown so much," he says. When the database started four years ago, "that 15 percent used to be 2 percent."

Jan Greenwood has also seen changes in the diversity power structure. As president of the higher ed executive search firm Greenwood & Associates in Miramar Beach, Fla., she recently helped with the vice presidential search at the University of Virginia. "This [diversity] field has kind of taken on a life of its own," she says. "It really has developed more of an emphasis on university-wide culture and transformation."

Many chief diversity officers function within small, sometimes one-person offices. That structure is likely to change as CDOs form a professional association (the new National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education) and push for best practices. According to King of the University of South Dakota, high-level diversity officers will increasingly have vertical as well as horizontal reporting structures covering several departments. "We're pushing now for these offices to be seen as and function like other offices of the university;" he says, explaining that USD is considering placing Disability Services as well as other departments within his realm.

The process of shifting diversity leadership upward can be tricky business; academe does not particularly value hierarchical structures or powerful authority figures. Some folks worry that a single person becoming responsible for diversity initiatives sends a signal to other faculty and staff that they can ease up on their own efforts. …