The Emergence of the Chief Diversity Officer Role in Higher Education
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July 19, 2019
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DEIDiversitySuccession PlanningEducationBoard and CEO AdvisoryHuman ResourcesDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion AdvisoryC-Suite Succession
Diversity Equity And Inclusion In Higher Education 
More than two-thirds of major US universities have appointed a chief diversity officer or executive-level equivalent since 2016.
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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 exists to identify the common profiles and reporting structures into which these roles fit.

To address this gap, Russell Reynolds Associates 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 

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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.

Over the course of 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:

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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.

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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 percent vs. 58 percent). 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 genuine strategic value of the role being more likely to launch a national search to surface external candidates.

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 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. 

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.

17% of CDO's Hold A Dual Title

 “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

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.

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“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 

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“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

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1 National Bureau of Economic Research. The Impact of Chief Diversity Officers on Diverse Faculty Hiring. NBER Working Paper 24969, August 2018. Based upon review of 462 R1, R2 or M1 institutions with a population of 4,000 or more.

2 Williams, Damon and Katrina Wade-Golden. “What Is a Chief Diversity Officer? Higher Education Perspective.” Diversity Officer Magazine. https://diversityofficermagazine.com/leadership/what-is-a-chief-diversity-officer-higher-education-perspective/

3 Ibid.

4 In a 2003 landmark decision, the Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admissions policy, determining that a narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions furthered the school’s “compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” This was a major affirmation of the idea that diversity promotes educational benefits for the broader campus community.

5 Parker, Eugene T. “Exploring the establishment of the office of the chief diversity officer in higher education: A multisite case study.” PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2015.

6 Williams and Wade-Golden. “What Is a Chief Diversity Officer?”

The authors would like to thank the following people for their helpful contributions to the creation of this study: Rahim Reed, Marcus Martin, Harsonal Sachar and Priyanka Nagar.