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COLLEGE & CULTURE: How Important Are Higher Learning Diversity Officers?

By Donnell Suggs

Diversity plays a huge part in where one goes to college. In many cases, a choice of institution plays a large part in where and what one does for a living. A city as diverse as Atlanta can offer much in the way of a unique and multicultural college experience, that said, how important is a university diversity office? Does a diversity officer recruit students like college athletic coaches recruit student-athletes at inner city and suburban high schools? Do diversity officers sort through college applications from aspiring freshmen from all over the country? Probably not. The diversity officer’s job is, at once, hard to describe while also very important to the student bodies they serve; equally as important as the librarian and the football coach, the professor and the resident assistant. The diversity officer essentially helps craft the cultural fabric of the institution.

How important is the college diversity officer? We are in the midst of finding out. At no period in the history of this country has the spotlight shone brighter on race relations than it is now. Taking nothing away from the civil rights movement, the national introduction of the Black Panther Party, the Black Muslim movement and the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama, the power of television and the advent of social media embeds any and every racially motivated event in every home in the country. Despite that fact, the diversity gap in the workplace and in academia simultaneously widens and contracts — a duality that both makes America special, a beacon of hope for immigrants the world over, while also being a hypocrite on the world’s stage.

From Corporate to Collegiate

The position of diversity officer has early roots in corporate America. “Education was a little behind,” says Archie W. Ervin, Ph.D., vice president, Institute Diversity at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “The position of diversity officer has been around since the 1980’s but for the last 15 years many institutions grapple with how to become supportive of a different clientele.” That timeline is even shorter in regards to Georgia Tech, where Ervin was hired as the institution’s inaugural vice president of Institute Diversity seven years ago. His role at one of the best engineering schools in the country, arguably Atlanta’s most notable university and the host site for the world’s top athletes during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, is clear. “The diversity officer’s role provides strategic institutional leadership,” said Ervin. “The officers help their respective institutions reflect a much more diverse America.”

With the evolving multicultural world of academics shrinking, the role of diversity officers in college and universities is quickly reaching critical status. “It’s a rapidly growing position and one of the newest roles in higher education,” says Ervin.


In October of 2016, Oliver Tomlin III, a senior partner in education and health care practices at Witt/Keiffer, an executive search firm in Atlanta, wrote “Role of Chief Diversity Officer Expanding on College Campuses” for In the piece, Tomlin highlights five principles necessary for a college or university president or search committee to follow when hiring a chief diversity officer: prioritizing, aligning the chief diversity officer’s responsibilities, clarifying the reporting structure, pledging the proper amount of support and resources for the incoming CDO upon hire, and not looking for a Messiah. “The CDO cannot fix the campus or undo years of ingrained patterns and policies,” Tomlin says of the final principle.

Ervin agrees that the CDO position isn’t an easy hire, but it is certainly a key hire for any institution. “We have to ensure that any artificial barriers on campus get dealt with,” he says. “That includes the diversity of clientele, students, faculty and staff. There’s a tremendous amount of research to make the climate more welcoming of the university environment.”

In the same piece, Tomlin goes on to say, “Responsibilities include, at one end of the spectrum, recruiting and retention of students, staff, faculty, and leadership. This is the most transitioned part of the job, increasing the numbers of underrepresented individuals within the institution and ensuring a pipeline for the future.” An example of who might be “underrepresented” can be clarified by the 4,627 colleges and universities currently in business within the United States and the 30 percent of students at those institutions who are considered ‘minorities’ according to figures found on in 2014.

On September 8, 2016, the New York Times reported that 90 CDOs were hired at colleges and universities during the previous 18-month period. On that same day, an online story was written by David Frum for The Atlantic titled “Whose Interest Do College Diversity Officers Serve?” The dual pieces allow an insightful view behind the scenes of the position: Some find it quite necessary while others question who it serves. Has there ever been a question about the school librarian, even in an age where you have the entire Internet and its eternally long tentacles in the palm of your hand?


The website lists a chief diversity officer’s salary at an average of $116,693 per year. has the average salary at a few thousand more at $166,506. In other words, there are professors on respective campuses that have annual salaries that dwarf the person who directly affects the college or university’s physical and thereby religious, spiritual, racial makeup. There is an obvious need for educated men and women to teach classes; there is an equally necessary need for a diverse campus to better train students for what the real world resembles. “Diversity officers are nowhere near some of those other roles,” adds Ervin in regards to the disparity in salary. “There has been a huge uptick in the amount of news coverage regarding diversity and gender equality, and college campuses have been involved.”

A prime example could be what transpired at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. in mid-August involving white supremacist groups. Though it was, for a night and a day, ground zero for race relations in America, it now has returned to what will still be an overwhelmingly white institution. According to a piece by John S. Rosenberg for the website, UVA accepted 294 of the 692 African-American applicants for the Class of 2020. That is an acceptance rate of 42.5 percent compared to 29.7 percent of white applicants. The number of white acceptees was 2,893 out of a possible 9,636.

The role of diversity officer has never been more important than right now.

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