What Is a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO)?

Dr. Denise O’Neil Green, Assistant Vice President/Vice Provost of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at Ryerson University
Dr. Denise O’Neil Green, Assistant Vice President/Vice Provost of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at Ryerson University
In 2012, I was named the inaugural Assistant Vice President/Vice Provost of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) for Ryerson University, which is located in Toronto, Ontario.  As such, my mandate is to provide leadership, advocacy, and coordination for the institution such that all members of our Ryerson community have the opportunity to learn, work, and live in an inclusive environment that enables them to strive for excellence and reach their potential. 

When one thinks about a Chief Academic Officer or Chief Financial Officer it is easy to imagine the scope of these positions.  One oversees and provides leadership to address an institution’s academic policies and practices, while the other is responsible for the organization’s financial integrity and fiscal policies.  Similarly, the Chief Diversity Officer or CDO is there to apply an equity, diversity, and inclusive framework to the organization’s policies, procedures, practices, and programs.  This EDI framework is what I call “The 4Ps”, and here are three of the top characteristics of a Chief Diversity Officer:

  • A CDO is a Leader.  Leadership is an important component of the Chief Diversity Officer’s role.  However, in some organizations, being able to truly lead is compromised due to limited staff, resources, and authority.  CDOs that are fortunate enough to report to either the President, Provost, and/or Vice President of Administration and Finance, have a greater capacity to lead because of their access to the organization’s top executives. 

    Ryerson Image Center during the day. Toronto, Ontario (Canada)
    Ryerson Image Center During the Day. Toronto, Ontario (Canada)
    The term “change agent” comes to mind.  The expectation is that the CDO will exercise inclusive leadership to challenge and change the culture of the organization through developing key relationships, educating, and building consensus.  Furthermore, by shaping the core EDI vision and mission, along with strategic/action plans, the CDO sets a course that allows other to freely see how they can be a part of that same enterprise and infuse EDI into their respective committee, department, division, faculty, and the list goes on.

  • A CDO is an Advocate.  Advocacy is a critical aspect of the CDO’s portfolio of responsibilities.  According to an Association of American Colleges and Universities 2005 report by Milem, Chang, and Antonio, Making Diversity Work on Campus, post-secondary institutions have four dimensions that require close examination: campus diversity, a historical legacy of inclusive and exclusive practices, psychological climate and behavioral climates.   After examining these dimensions, the CDO may, for example, advocate to discontinue exclusive policies, seek to address the lack of diversity among faculties, or fight to address a negative climate for individuals with disabilities.  Certainly, others within the organization will advocate and should do so…the more support the better.  Nevertheless, to be a change agent for equity, diversity and inclusion, advocacy is at the core of a CDOs role. There is a delicate balance that must be struck; while it is understood that the CDO is a member of the administration; the CDO is expected to be a critic as well.
  • A CDO is a Coordinator. Coordination is self explanatory; however, it is easier said than done within postsecondary institutions that are extremely decentralized, with multiple governing bodies, opinion makers, and key stakeholders.  When working in silos dominates the organizational culture, it is essential for the CDO to bring people together for the purpose of coordinating EDI work.  It enables the CDO to pool together resources, create synergy, limit reinventing the wheel, and add capacity. The CDO is able to connect the dots from a bird’s eye view in order to spark organizational change.

While there is much more that can be said about what a Chief Diversity Officer is…the role can be constructed and carried out in numerous ways.  Its placement within an organization can dictate its failure or success.  Although this type of position is relatively new to postsecondary education and is fraught with many challenges, if done well, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion can be the spark to set a transformational course.  

Print this entry


  1. says

    In my opinion, President Obama needs a Chief Diversity Officer.  It would mean a lot in this country if the President assigned someone to monitor the progress of diversity initiatives within the government and among contractors that do business with the government.  It would say "this is important, and shouldn't be overlooked", and hopefully, it would encourage other organizations to follow suit.

  2. says

    I agree that a Chief Diversity Officer is critical to help organizations and institutions achieve an inclusive environment that values diversity and ensures equitable practices.  I like what you wrote Denise about a CDO needs to connect the dots from a 'bird's eye view'.  This is where objectivity matters, taking into consideration all of humanity having a right to be treated with respect and dignity. This is a crucial time when a CDO is highly needed in every organization and institution, particularly as we witness what his happening in the North American landscape as we witness the skeletons coming out of closets (such as Donald Trump who speaks for many on the stereotypes and discrimination that continue to pervade the social spectrum).  

    • Dr. Denise O'Neil Green says

      Janet, thank you for your response. If the CDO office/division is constructed in the appropriate way, connecting the dots is an important role that can help decision makers intentionally embed values of equity, diversity and inclusion. Not relying on rhetoric or stereotypes, rather objective information, both qualitative and quantitative, that provides a comprehensive picture of a particular organization or institution.

Leave a Reply