Understanding the Leadership Experiences and Competencies Necessary to Advance Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education



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Background: Research on leadership in higher education is extensive, but notably scarce within this scholarship is the role that executive administrators can play in leading diversity and inclusion on campus. The ability of executive leaders to create a diverse and inclusive campus climate is particularly critical at predominately White institutions (PWIs) of higher education, given many of the recent high-profile cases of discrimination, exclusion, and unequal treatment of historically marginalized students. Purpose: The purpose of this study is to identify the experiences, skillsets, and core competencies needed by executive higher education leaders, more specifically chief diversity officers (CDO), in order to meaningfully advance diversity and inclusion efforts at PWI’s. Three research questions guided this study: 1) In what ways do the personal and professional lived experiences of these executive leaders influence their efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive campus? 2) What do executive leaders describe as the core competencies and preparation experiences necessary to thrive in the role of lead diversity officer at a university? 3) What institutional factors do executive leaders view as the key facilitators and challenges increasing diversity and inclusion on campus? Methods: This study used a multi-case study analytic approach to provide a more robust and compelling design to exam multiple cases and allow for replication in reaching conclusions. A total of n=13 executive-level administrators (e.g., executive director, vice provost, vice president, or president) from public, four-year PWIs were recruited to participate in semi-structured interviews. The themes that emerged within and across each case became the basis for the key findings of this study. Findings: One’s personal identity and lived experiences played a central role in shaping the path to a CDO position. To develop the competencies needed to thrive as a CDO, interviewees underscored the importance of personal growth and reflection, as well continual professional development through association memberships and attending workshops and conferences. The number of years at the institution was an important factor shaping the CDO’s effectiveness, as longevity helped establish rapport with faculty and staff, build credibility, and strengthen the relationship with the administration. CDO’s placement within the organizational chart, budget allocation (or lack thereof), and ability to have honest conversations with administration about sensitive topics all affected the ability to meaningfully advance diversity and inclusion. Conclusion: Although college campuses are becoming more diverse, the demographic profile of college leadership has been slow to change. If college administrators lack the cultural competency necessary to understand the needs of diverse ethnic groups, then student success, faculty instruction, and campus culture are in jeopardy. Findings from this study can help institutions recruit effective CDOs and identify the campus resources and support that CDO’s need in order to do their job effectively. Recommendations for institutional practice include well-crafted onboarding practices for new CDO’s, diversity and inclusion trainings for all college executives, and routine assessment of diversity and inclusion initiatives across campus.



Chief Diversity Officers, Diversity, Inclusion, Predominately White Institutions, Competence, Lived experiences, Administrators