Transforming Our Institutions for
the Twenty-first Century:
The Role of the Chief Diversity Officer
By Nancy “Rusty” Barceló,
first vice president for access, equity, and multicultural
affairs, University of Minnesota
It is difficult for me to explore diversity in higher
education without the context of my own professional
path. I have made my career moves with two questions
in mind: How do we reformulate diversity work to meet
changing needs? And how do we institutionalize our efforts
so we don’t have to begin anew every decade?
When I joined the academy as a young educator, diversity
work was seen as political and temporary, and as such
it was not valued as an educational objective. The academy
viewed diversity educators as tokens or less-than-legitimate
professionals and diversity work as a transitional response
to a “problem” that would one day be “fixed.”
Many scholars, seeing that tenure reviews did not reward
diversity efforts, demurred from pursuing this work
in their research, teaching, and service. Unfortunately,
these attitudes persist today.
I cannot recall any movement that began in higher education
in the 1960s that still struggles for legitimacy as
much as diversity does. Even as strategic plans voicing
institutional commitment proliferate, new strategies
rarely accompany them. All too often these plans are
reframed versions of early compensatory programs that
primarily focus on access. They frequently ignore the
need for policies that promote systemic organizational
change—policies that would push campus diversity
efforts to new levels.
In the face of this persistent leadership void, institutions
grapple with the new challenges of the twenty-first
- Minority communities are challenging higher education
to be more accountable for meeting their needs, even
as institutions shift to more competitive admission
- The cultural and language issues of immigrants of
color are requiring higher education to rethink outreach
and retention efforts.
- Student profiles are shifting as we witness a rise
in multiracial students and students with multiple
- Higher education is recognizing the need to partner
with communities and schools to ensure students are
- Rising tuition is requiring new approaches to financial
aid and scholarships for low-income students.
- Higher education is struggling with the concept
that diversity is not a euphemism for assimilation,
but a challenge to transform an educational system
that promotes and values individual group differences.
- Definitions of diversity are becoming more inclusive
of such dimensions as gender, disability, sexuality,
The Role of the Chief Diversity Officer
Despite the new challenges and ongoing struggles, I
believe that important changes are on the horizon. Many
institutions—the University of Minnesota, the
University of Virginia, and the University of California–Berkeley
among them—have appointed senior/chief diversity
officers (CDOs) as vice presidents or vice provosts.
In creating these positions, institutions not only illustrate
their renewed commitment to diversity but, more importantly,
assert that diversity will be “at the table,”
informing policy in formal ways at key meetings with
senior officials. These positions also enhance the coordination
of diversity efforts within a campus and with external
The CDO trend indicates an acceptance of diversity
as a reality of this century, and an acceptance of the
opportunity to bring diversity from the margins to the
center of the campus. With the CDOs’ help, we
can bridge the divides between student and academic
affairs and between staff and faculty. CDOs provide
the type of vigilance and leadership needed to ensure
that institutions move toward transformation by developing
and implementing accountability measures. When the role
of the CDO is directly aligned with the institution’s
core academic mission, the CDO is empowered to develop
and implement strategies that position diversity as
a true core value.
In 2001, I joined the University of Washington (UW)
as CDO and in doing so entered an important conversation.
In response to the passage of laws restricting UW’s
use of race and gender as admissions factors, UW’s
faculty and administrators began rethinking our diversity
models, a move I believed was necessary to meet the
changing needs of society (even before anti–affirmative
action legislation). The conversation at UW included
the entire campus, and the successes that arose from
that conversation exceeded anyone’s expectations.
UW saw progress in a range of areas, from increased
diversity of the student body to a rise of women’s
voices calling institutions to meet their needs (from
teaching practices to domestic-partner insurance).
I believe that the progress made at UW was due to two
key groups of people: a cadre of leaders, often in mid-management
positions and frequently concentrated in student affairs
within such units as equal opportunity protection and
women’s centers; and a group of faculty and staff,
often concentrated in ethnic, women’s, and LGBT
studies, who subscribed to the values of social justice
and pressed for change at all levels. These individuals
often worked from the margins, not in key leadership
positions. By engaging with committees and via governance
structures, they helped institutions advance change.
Their efforts to develop models that move beyond access
to true transformation can provide guidance to other
The principles I learned from my experience at UW inform
my ongoing work at the University of Minnesota (UMN),
where I migrated recently to contribute to a strategic
repositioning. UMN’s administration has committed
to transforming the university, and it recognizes the
need to reflect the diversity of individuals and groups
in society by drawing upon their multiple knowledge
traditions and perspectives. I am excited and buoyed
by the knowledge that UMN wants to address diversity
in systemic ways in order to reshape higher education
and its outcomes. The president has made it clear to
me that he wants diversity to be an integral part of
transforming the institution. This is a critical point:
diversity, in order not to be devalued as an “add-on,”
must be included in the earliest stages of institutional
Moving toward Transformation
In using the bold term “transformation,”
we are moving beyond access, beyond boundaries, beyond
restrictive definitions and conceptual frameworks to
create new ways of being, acting, teaching, learning,
and knowing. By transforming our teaching, research,
and service programs, we will achieve academic excellence,
address social justice, and begin to solve some of the
most challenging problems of our time.
Our twenty-first-century diversity efforts need to
be grounded in the new scholarship emerging from these
multiple forms of knowledge and theoretical perspectives.
We need to ask again, and hear from different communities:
- What do we aspire to be?
- What do we value?
- What do we want our students to know? How do we
want them to act?
- What kind of climate do we want at our university,
and how do we get there?
- How should diversity efforts be organized to be
both inclusive and effective?
As I have said before, to create the change needed
for our continued success, we must be willing to respond
to the challenges and the tensions that diversity presents.
To be effective leaders we must be willing to reevaluate
the structures of knowledge, the patterns of relationships,
and the organizing principles of institutional life.
The entry of new students and faculty into the academy,
and the creation of ethnic studies, women’s studies,
and disability and GLBTQ studies, have provided new
ways of knowing and being in the world that have already
begun to transform higher education. Our stories, read
together, layered one over the other, bringing together
disparate knowledge and traditions, can only build a
stronger, more inclusive university.
Staffing a Successful CDO’s Office
The CDO is a
position with great promise, but its success depends
upon funding and staffing. The CDO’s office
must have a strong infrastructure that includes
- research and data management;
- development and grant writing;
- communications, public relations, and a Web
- a senior staff member who focuses on administrative
and personnel issues, community development
outreach, faculty and staff development, student
outreach, and retention;
- a central budget that is base funded;
- a staff of diverse multiculturalists;
- diversity units that report to the CDO and
provide direct services to their constituencies
and resources to the campus and community.
This article is part of a chapter of a forthcoming
collection on diversity and institutional transformation
in universities edited by Sylvia Hurtado, copyright
Jossey-Bass, published here by permission.