The Emergence of the Chief Diversity Officer Role in Higher Education

DEIDiversity & CultureEducationDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion AdvisoryC-Suite Succession
min Report
July 19, 2019
12 min
DEIDiversity & CultureEducationDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion AdvisoryC-Suite Succession
Chief diversity officers have become commonplace across leading US universities. RRA looks at their profiles and reporting structures.


Colleges and universities are increasingly looking to CDOs to help oversee their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts. We look at the backgrounds and competencies they are seeking in CDOs, how they are structuring the role, and what it takes to make a CDO successful.

Chief diversity officers have become increasingly common across leading institutions of higher education, driven by the push to create more diverse, inclusive, and equitable environments for the benefit of all members of the community. While much has been written on the evolution of the mandate and remit of this role, relatively little data exist to identify the common profiles and reporting structures into which these roles fit.

To address this gap, Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA) combined our proprietary database of candidates from recent chief diversity officer (CDO) searches we have conducted with publicly available information to identify 60 CDOs from major research universities and liberal arts colleges. We reviewed the profiles, backgrounds, and reporting structures and spoke separately with more than a dozen sitting chief diversity officers and university presidents to understand the unique context and challenges of this role.

Our findings indicate that, while specific needs and priorities will vary by institution, several broad conclusions can be drawn about the effective CDO.

The effective higher education CDO demonstrates:

  • Capacity for strategic leadership of change management initiatives
  • Ability to effectively persuade and influence stakeholders
  • Data-savvy storytelling skills
  • Effective external engagement
  • Personal motivation and resilience
  • Domain expertise and an understanding of higher education culture

The effective higher education CDO is set up for success when they:

  • Are empowered within the organizational structure by reporting to either the president or provost
  • Have a clearly articulated mandate with agreed-upon metrics for success that recognize both the tangible and intangible impacts of the function
  • Are supported by an institution that views diversity as a resource to be leveraged rather than a compliance exercise

Evolution of the chief diversity officer role

As of 2016, more than two-thirds of major US universities had appointed a chief diversity officer or executive-level equivalent,1 with at least 30 institutions having created the role in the last five years alone.2 The growth of this role builds upon the historical trend toward promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in higher education that began with the creation of “minority affairs” roles, which first began appearing at universities in the 1970s.3 Primarily oriented toward compliance or risk-mitigation, including issues related to workplace discrimination, affirmative action, and accessibility, these roles were typically located at the department level or within a division of student services, rather than at the executive level or within the president’s cabinet. While undoubtedly integral in moving the overall conversation regarding campus diversity forward, these roles were often criticized as purely symbolic or insufficient appeasement to minority and underrepresented groups who felt their needs were not being properly addressed.

Throughout the early 2000s, understanding and conceptualization of diversity began to shift, with many pointing to a series of Supreme Court rulings, most notably related to the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admissions policy,4 as being instrumental in shifting universities away from a legalistic and mechanical view of diversity and toward a more holistic understanding of how diversity in all forms can benefit learning environments.5 Rather than being defined simply as the presence of individuals that differ by ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or some other social identity, diversity is now seen as a resource that can be leveraged to enhance the learning of all students and is, therefore, fundamental to institutional excellence.6

Accordingly, the mandate and expectations of the CDO role have also evolved, with many universities now positioning the function as integral to the strategic direction and success of the institution. While specific mandates vary by institution, effective CDOs are now distinguished by their ability to infuse diversity into all aspects of university life, including:

  • Enhancing compositional diversity of students, faculty, and staff
  • Spearheading culture change to promote inclusive learning environments
  • Promoting diversity of topics and perspectives into the curriculum
  • Helping the broader community, including alumni, to engage with diversity-related issues

Key competencies of the chief diversity officer

"A lot of this work is about stirring the pot, so it's hard to define quantitative progress." Chief Diversity Officer of Top 50 National University

While the specific attributes and types of expertise needed in a chief diversity officer will vary according to the particular mandate of the role, several key competencies differentiate the most successful CDOs and enable them to collaborate and extend their influence across the institution. In addition to foundational competencies such as setting strategy, execution for results, leading teams and building relationships, best-in-class CDOs are defined by a track record and expertise in the following areas:

Strategic leadership and change management

  • Able to develop a vision that inspires and galvanizes others into action
  • Systems-level thinker with the ability to build and lead comprehensive organizational change initiatives, not just single programs
  • Strong execution skills, including the ability to manage teams and budgets

Persuasion and influence

  • Convener and community builder, with the ability to achieve results through influence, force of intellect, and dynamism of personality
  • Ability and willingness to build consensus and work through competing interests to identify win-win solutions
  • Ability to adapt language and styles to different audiences and work across organizational boundaries to build buy-in
  • Particularly astute at navigating an institution's political landscape, as well as responding to politically sensitive situations
  • Builds relationships with internal partners to identify opportunities to bring a diversity lens to other functions beyond admissions, including advancement, communications, and external affairs

Data-savvy storytelling

  • Seeks and analyzes data from a variety of sources to inform and support decisions and to align others with the organization's overall strategy
  • Able to take a metrics-driven approach to DE&I and establish key performance indicators (KPIs) and accountability mechanisms to keep the institution focused on its goals
  • At the same time, understands the limitations of quantitative data in telling the "diversity story" and is able to use qualitative data and other tools to make the case

External engagement

  • Ability to partner well with external constituents, particularly in complex environments
  • Ability to serve as a highly visible spokesperson for the institution to a range of audiences
  • Track record of productive collaboration with external partners, including state legislatures, community-based organizations, and other external entities

Personal motivation and resilience

  • Commitment to the goals of diversity and inclusion and personal belief in the goals' importance and potential
  • Ability to leverage the commitment to provide motivation through what can often become the "lightning rod" position for complex and sensitive political issues

Domain expertise and understanding of higher education culture

  • Excellent command of diversity issues as they pertain to higher education, including issues related to student and faculty recruitment and retention, diversifying the curriculum, assessing the impacts of diversity, measuring campus climate, and legal requirements and liabilities
  • Possesses in-depth knowledge and experience of the culture of the academy, including issues related to shared governance, tenure and promotion, and decentralized campus politics

Historically, diversity professionals often came to the role from either an HR or other compliance-focused background, indicative of the narrow scope usually afforded to the function. As the mandate and complexity of the role have expanded, so too has the range of profiles that have become relevant. Our analysis revealed four “archetypes” of CDOs among today’s diversity leaders, representing the most common current pathways to the CDO role.


“It’s important for [the chief diversity officer] to be proactive and to be someone that students, faculty and staff are comfortable and confident seeking out.” President of Top 60 National University

Chief diversity officer reporting structures

Almost four in five chief diversity officers in our sample report either to the president or chancellor, reflecting the clear prioritization in recent years of this role as part of the president’s cabinet. Notably, externally appointed CDOs were significantly more likely to report to the president or chancellor compared to internal promotes (94% vs. 58%). This discrepancy may be a result of institutions using a senior reporting structure as an incentive to entice high-caliber external talent or of those institutions that recognize the genuine strategic value of the role being more likely to launch a national search to surface external candidates.


Locating the CDO directly below the president, chancellor or provost significantly increases their ability to effect change at the highest levels, given the increased visibility, access, and symbolic impact of these senior positions. Through their participation in cabinet meetings or other campus-wide decision-making processes, CDOs are able to infuse DE&I considerations into important conversations about budgeting, new initiatives, and strategic planning.

“Our chief diversity officer used to report to the provost; however, this signaled, especially to minority staff members, that what they were telling us didn’t matter. The CDO now reports directly to me, which we hoped would send a message—students didn’t necessarily understand it, but it meant something to faculty and staff.” President of Top 25 National University

Roughly one in six CDOs holds a dual title, most often serving as both CDO and as their institution’s primary faculty development leader or head of strategic planning. These dual roles can be useful in suffusing diversity issues across a wider swath of university operations but should be approached with caution. Hybrid roles can also result in a portfolio that is too broad for one position or in a de-prioritization of diversity as a matter of institutional importance.

Among those reporting to the CDO, there is significant variability in team size. The median number of direct reports to the CDO in our sample was three, with public institutions having a higher median of six and private institutions having a median of two. This variability by institution type makes sense given that public institutions tend to be much larger and therefore their DE&I teams need to serve a larger number of students, faculty, and other stakeholders.


“It’s important for [the chief diversity officer] to be proactive and to be someone that students, faculty, and staff are comfortable and confident seeking out.” President of Top 60 National University 

RRA advice to leadership

Before creating a CDO role or launching a search:

  1. Align on the core DE&I mandate: Whether it's a student or faculty diversity metrics, institutional culture, or inclusive curriculum, most universities have a pressing need that drives them to seek a CDO. Defining this need will determine the scope of the role and the best CDO profile to tap.
  2. Get buy-in from most senior leadership: Regardless of what the core issues are, the president, provost, board of trustees, and any other senior leadership must be convinced of the rationale and value proposition for the role. Without clear commitment and support from the top, a new CDO is unlikely to succeed.
  3. Assess the readiness for change: Acknowledge that a healthy appetite for change, backed by top leadership, is required for the CDO to be successful.

After appointing a CDO:

  1. Resource: Adequately resource the chief diversity officer based on their skills, remit, and institutional needs.
  2. Position: Ensure that the chief diversity officer has regular exposure to the highest levels of the university and that there is a structure in place to support this.
  3. Educate: Facilitate knowledge sharing among institutional leaders and stakeholders to ensure that the chief diversity officer gains a deep understanding of the institution and its unique challenges.
  4. Define/Measure: Define and align on what long-term success looks like. Ensure the chief diversity officer is genuinely empowered to affect change in those areas.
  5. Accountability: Ensure the right measures are in place to hold the leadership team accountable to DE&I goals (e.g., leadership scorecards, KPIs, etc.), recognizing that DE&I must be measured through both quantitative and qualitative metrics.
  6. Training: Coach inclusive leadership skills at all levels of the organization so people have the language and skills to meet those goals.

“I attribute my success to the senior leadership here. They really get this work; they value the importance of it as well as the nuances and challenges that come with it. We don’t throw any of it under the rug; we really talk out in the open about it. … Most importantly, they support us when we have to make a tough decision.”  Chief Diversity Officer of Top 25 National University


1. Steven W. Bradley, James R. Garven, Wilson W. Law, James E. West, “The Impact of Chief Diversity Officers on Diverse Faculty Hiring,” Working Paper 24969, National Bureau of Economic Research, August 2018.
2. Damon A. Williams, Katrina Wade-Golden, “What Is a Chief Diversity Officer? Higher Education Perspective,” Diversity Officer Magazine, July 2009,
3. Ibid.
4. Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003)
5. Eugene T. Parker, “Exploring the establishment of the office of the chief diversity officer in higher education: A multisite case study,” PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2015.
6 Damon A. Williams, Katrina Wade-Golden, “What Is a Chief Diversity Officer? Higher Education Perspective,” Diversity Officer Magazine, July 2009,

Additional Authors

Emily Meneer leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Social Impact and Education sector Knowledge team.

The authors would like to thank their colleagues Rahim Reed, Marcus Martin, Harsonal Sachar and Priyanka Nagar for their contributions to this paper.