Meet the CDOs

Lucia Nuñez (left), Madison College’s vice president of equity, inclusion and community engagement, is leading the college's efforts to hire and retain a diverse faculty. (Photo: Madison College)

Cheryl Gonzalez, chief diversity officer (CDO) at Florida’s Hillsborough Community College (HCC), says, “If you’re going to have strategies for diversity and equity, they should be embedded in a strategic plan, and the organization should have a CDO. Someone has to be responsible.”

At HCC, that person is Gonzalez. She was appointed to the position in early 2019 and is a member of a growing cohort of CDOs at community colleges.

In the Minnesota State system, 24 of the 30 community and technical colleges have senior diversity officers at the cabinet level. In the State University of New York system, several of the community colleges have CDOs operating under diversity strategic plans. Northern Virginia Community College, Sinclair Community College (Ohio), Lansing Community College (Michigan) and Everett Community College (Washington) all have CDOs.

Other titles are sometimes used, like at Madison College (Wisconsin), which has a cabinet-level vice president for equity, inclusion and community engagement. At Clover Park Technical College (Washington), a cabinet-level executive director for equity, diversity and inclusion was appointed last month.

As of August, 48 community colleges and system offices have institutional or individual memberships with the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE), the professional organization for CDOs and senior-level diversity executives, according to NADOHE’s executive manager Debbie Nolan. The 48 memberships encompass a fraction of community colleges nationwide, yet the membership number has been rising over the past couple of years, Nolan says.

“In 2017, I started noticing that the CDO position was becoming more prominent at community colleges,” adds Kevin Christian, director of diversity, inclusion and equity at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). “More community colleges are now considering this an essential position at the executive level.”

Cabinet-level diversity positions emerged at predominantly white baccalaureate-granting institutions in the 2000s. In 2003, Brown University’s President Ruth Simmons, the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution, appointed an associate provost for diversity, while Harvard hired a senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity in 2005 in the wake of former President Lawrence Summers’s controversial remarks on women in science.

Clyde Pickett, CDO for the Minnesota State system and an authority on the CDO role, notes that although community colleges are behind baccalaureate-granting institutions in appointing CDOs, they are by their nature the most inclusive sector of higher education.

“Community and technical colleges have always been there as an open access point for diverse students, faculty and staff throughout their history,” he says.

The role of the CDO

Broadly speaking, CDOs are the highest-ranking individuals on campus responsible for issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion. A CDO’s responsibilities can include everything from organizing cultural diversity programming and conducting anti-bias training, to responding to Title IX discrimination claims and cultivating community partnerships.

The expectations of CDOs can be overwhelming. Echoing several colleagues, Tricia Brand, CDO at Portland Community College (PCC) in Oregon, cautions that with constrained staff and financial resources, CDOs can’t tackle everything all at once.

“There needs to be recognition that capacity is limited,” she says.

For a CDO to be successful, according to Gonzalez, the mandate and direction must come from the president.

“It goes back to leadership and resources,” she says. “What does the leadership want the role to be? What resources and authority does the CDO have to do the work? Leadership paves the way to success.”

A look at Portland

A packet created for a team-building and visioning retreat for Portland Community College’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. (Photo: via Twitter @triciabrand)

PCC launched its Office of Equity and Inclusion in 2014 and applied the CDO title to the office’s director in 2016. Being one of the earlier community colleges to take these steps, the campus has built a record of accomplishments.

In 2014, a committee working in tandem with the Office of Equity and Inclusion created a toolkit for facilitating the implementation of a “critical race theory” (CRT) lens in policy-making. At a meeting on a library renovation project, the chair of PCC’s board of directors asked a panel of the college’s facilities executives if they used the CRT lens in the planning process. To Brand, the board’s attention to using the CRT tool to advance equity and inclusion was a huge win for the institutionalization of the CRT process.

Another key achievement that Brand celebrates was when PCC declared itself a sanctuary campus for undocumented students in 2016.

“We really had to take a stand,” she says. “This felt important to us.” PCC subsequently opened a Dreamers Resource Center where undocumented students can access academic, financial and legal resources.

Diversifying faculty

The limited percentages of female faculty and faculty from under-represented minority groups is a powerful driver for the CDO movement. At higher education institutions nationwide, 6 percent of faculty are African-American and 5 percent are Hispanic . Though these percentages are slightly higher in the community college sector, they don’t climb near the percentages of African-American and Hispanic students attending community colleges, which are respectively 13 percent and 25 percent.

Madison College, which enrolls 26 percent of students of color, is implementing multiple strategies to hire and retain diverse faculty, including targeted recruitment and tracking of diversity demographics by department, says Lucia Nuñez, the college’s vice president of equity, inclusion and community engagement.

“It’s about leadership from the top and monitoring each level to see what’s happening,” she says.

Nuñez reports that the percentage of faculty of color increased from 12 percent to 13 percent between 2016 and 2018 at Madison, but that more significant progress has been challenging to achieve.

“The crisis of education in our country for our communities of color is impacting the pipeline of those with master’s and doctoral degrees,” she says.

Nuñez thinks about her work in the larger political and social context, as do Bland and Gonzalez.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint. This work takes time,” she says. “To undo the systems that historically have worked against our students, we need to tear down the foundations and walls of the past.”

About the Author

Eric Neutuch
is a freelance education writer.