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College diversity officer – Demanding job, low resources

Seven months ago, Mark Brimhall-Vargas became Brandeis University’s chief diversity officer. He was the first person to hold that job, though he has spent about 20 years doing diversity work in higher education in the United States.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Brimhall-Vargas reports directly to the president, and for the first time in his career he feels like he has a seat at the table when major institutional decisions are made. Four full-time staff members report to him.

But according to a new survey of chief diversity officers at institutions nationwide, Brimhall-Vargas is in the minority. Fewer than half of respondents said they began with adequate resources to carry out their responsibilities effectively.

"When there’s not a lot of structural support for the position, it can become very overwhelming very fast," Brimhall-Vargas said.

Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm that often works with colleges, surveyed 81 chief diversity officers about the challenges they face, particularly during their first year on the job. Most worked at colleges, though a handful of the respondents were at a hospital, an academic medical centre or a medical school.

Dozens of campuses have created such positions in the past 15 years, often in response to pressure from student activists, but the role is still relatively new.

More than half of the survey’s respondents said they were the first chief diversity officer at their campus, and a similar proportion have been in the job for fewer than five years.

The survey paints a picture of a nascent field in which people are largely satisfied with their jobs but often don’t have the money and staff to carry out all of their plans and face pressure from a range of sources.

Those can include senior administrators who hired them and expect them to deliver on bold diversity goals, students who want to see immediate change on campus and, at public universities, state lawmakers who might cast doubt on whether diversity offices actually accomplish anything.

There’s also the challenge of feeling like the person who is expected to come in and solve all of a college’s diversity issues single-handedly when, in fact, changing a campus culture requires everyone to shoulder that responsibility.

Here are some other notable findings from the survey:

  • Forty percent report directly to the president; 21% report to the provost.
  • About half said expectations about what they could accomplish in their first year were realistic.
  • Sixteen percent said their institution had a strategic plan in place for diversity and inclusion when they started the job.
  • More than two-thirds said the "conditions were right" for them to succeed in their first year, and 72% said they felt they had buy-in on the campus for what they were doing.

The issue of a lack of resources resonated with the chief diversity officers and experts in the field who spoke with The Chronicle.

Many chief diversity officers are ‘pressured’ at the beginning to answer the question "What do you think you’re going to need?" said Kathleen Wong(Lau), chief diversity officer at San Jose State University. But that’s impossible to know until they have time to understand the college’s history, culture and structure, as well as where its pain points are, she said.

Gail B Williams has been the chief diversity officer at Hodges University for six years, longer than most of her peers. Budget-wise, she feels comfortable. But she is basically a one-woman show. A campus diversity committee supports her work, but her only staff member is a part-time work-study student.

Williams also didn’t have much guidance on what to do when she first took on the job. She had to educate herself about best practices for diversity officers. "I actually wrote my own job description," she said. In the survey, 41% of respondents said their responsibilities weren’t spelled out clearly at first.

Need for high-level support

That fewer than half of the chief diversity officers said they reported to the president troubled Walter M Kimbrough, president of Dillard University. "If a person is hired, they need to report to the president," he wrote in an email. "Anything less than that comes across as appeasement."

The surge in activism by black and Latino students at the end of 2015 signalled to Brimhall-Vargas, of Brandeis, that students and campus leaders at many institutions did not have a good working relationship. "There was this sense that each side saw the other as unavailable, inaccessible, and untrustworthy," he said.

If chief diversity officers are situated within the senior administration, that can help bridge the gap between students and college officials, he said.

The vast majority of the chief diversity officers surveyed said they had the support of their college’s administration and were pleased with how their first year had gone.

Those statistics might partially be a reflection of how new most of the chief diversity officers are to their jobs, said Myra Hindus, founder and principal at Creative Diversity Solutions, a consulting firm that helps colleges assess and improve their diversity.

When an institution decides to hire a diversity officer, the campus is usually in the midst of a period of strong commitment to diversity and inclusion, for one reason or another, Hindus said.

That commitment can ebb and flow over time, especially if a new president arrives with different priorities, she said. And since the chief diversity officer is often a stand-alone position, without many – if any – staff members and units directly reporting to him or her, that can make them vulnerable to administrative whims, she said.

At first, Williams was satisfied with her performance as Hodges’ chief diversity officer. But now that she’s been in the job for six years, she’s more critical of herself. "The more I learn, the more I see what I’m not doing," she said.

She hopes she’ll be able to hire a full-time staff member soon to help her with day-to-day duties so that she can spend more time gathering data, assessing the campus climate, and building relationships with the off-campus community.

The survey makes clear that chief diversity officers who are new to the role must have a realistic view of how much they can accomplish right away, Brimhall-Vargas said.

And they must be flexible, he said, because the job constantly evolves depending on what’s going on at the college as well as the national dialogue around issues of race and inclusion. Sixty percent of survey respondents said their responsibilities "changed significantly" during their first year.

Brimhall-Vargas also appreciated seeing through the survey that many other diversity officers are experiencing the same challenges as he is. At times, he said, "it’s very easy to think that nothing is working".

New diversity officers will inevitably have to respond to racist incidents and the like, Wong(Lau) said, which makes it "an ongoing struggle" to plan for the long term.

"You get this churn that happens when there’s an incident on campus, or something that happens nationally that affects a particular constituency on campus," she said. Responding to such situations is an important part of the role, she said, but that’s not all: "The CDO’s job is to inspire people to see the larger mission."

And colleges need to give them the support they need to do that.
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