Liberal Education

Diversity Work in Contentious Times: The Role of the Chief Diversity Officer

Without community, there is no liberation ... but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.—Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”

I am the chief diversity officer (CDO) at San José State University (SJSU), which is both a Hispanic-Serving Institution and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–Serving Institution. Following the 2016 presidential election, my office began receiving calls from professors who were anxious about facilitating discussions in their classrooms. At SJSU, a significant number of students were upset by—and fearful about—incidents of hate and harassment nationwide, which had risen steeply in the election’s aftermath.1 Many immigrant students, particularly those who are undocumented or registered with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, were also afraid that they or their friends and family members would be deported.

SJSU’s instructors were not calling my office for personal or emotional support. Instead, they wanted CDO-vetted advice that they could give to students and their families. They also wanted to know how to support their students emotionally when class discussions veered into upsetting topics like racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia. Some asked for guidance on facilitation, feeling that their previous course policies prohibiting discussion of politics were inauthentic, disconnected, and frankly ludicrous when the whole nation seemed to be caught up in political news. Like many educators across the nation, SJSU faculty found themselves having to “play mediator and educator to students from a range of backgrounds.”2 These concerns only intensified after the presidential inauguration in January.

Leadership from the CDO

Especially in times like these, preparing faculty to support diversity, equity, and inclusion within their classrooms is a multidimensional undertaking,3 encompassing areas of work such as the curriculum, pedagogy, research, and faculty–student mentorship. Enacting institutional change in all these areas means negotiating complex systems of governance involving multiple evaluation bodies, supervisory lines, and budgets. And yet, within these systems, faculty are the primary connector between students and the institution. Faculty are responsible for curriculum delivery and evaluation; as scholars, they have relative autonomy to develop their own research, curricula, teaching methodology, and modes of engagement, especially if they are tenured or on the tenure track. Faculty also have academic freedom, which affords them some latitude in expressing themselves, interacting with others, and designing their teaching practices.

Thus, faculty are essential to building capacity for diversity, equity, and inclusion. But how can the CDO best ensure that faculty have the skills they need to create inclusive classrooms? Mandatory faculty training on diversity and inclusive pedagogy might seem to be the answer; but even with a supportive provost and deans, mandatory training is very difficult to implement. Critics of mandatory training cite infringement on academic freedom, the need to maintain faculty governance over faculty life, and a commitment to the faculty’s relative autonomy in determining their research, teaching, and service activities. On some campuses (SJSU included), the faculty union contract prohibits mandatory training of any kind, with the exception of Title IX training prescribed at both the state and federal levels. Some faculty also contend that diversity training lies outside the scope of their regular duties, and that they should be paid accordingly to attend it. From my past experience as executive director of the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education, I know that such objections are common across the United States.

The strategies I have developed to build capacity for diversity, equity, and inclusion at SJSU include (1) offering voluntary training focused on intergroup dialogue and other topics for students, faculty, staff, and administrators (e.g., diversity training for those who lead new student orientation);4 (2) solidifying the diversity office’s campus-wide reputation for research-based, ethically grounded work;5 (3) working with deans, chairs, and the provost to make the diversity office an accessible and useful resource for problem solving and consultation; (4) modeling transparency by clearly communicating processes and protocols, especially in response to incidents; and (5) holding members of the campus community accountable to policies, executive orders, laws, and standards of behavior, regardless of organizational location. The last two areas of work are particularly important in developing a sense across the campus community that the administration addresses diversity issues directly, promptly, and fairly, no matter the power dynamics of the individuals and groups involved, nor how embarrassing the situation for the institution.

Importantly, my own social identity informs this structural work. As a woman of color, I am able to translate my own experiences and struggles into tools for shaping the work of inclusion at both personal and professional levels. My mere presence contributes to structural diversity, which is important for institutional change.6 But my privilege is relative, balanced always with the possibility that I may be marginalized within the very system I am trying to change, even when that system is calling for greater diversity and equity.

Effective institutional structures

Because SJSU’s CDO position is new (starting in July 2016), I am building the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion from the ground up, with new staff and a new structure. I sit on the president’s cabinet and report directly to the president, and I oversee all Title IX investigations in addition to leading the work described above. With a budget and physical space in the president’s office, the new office has high visibility.

The office’s structure was designed jointly by a campus-community task force and the President’s Commission on Diversity. The president charged both entities with designing a CDO position in the aftermath of a racist incident in the residence halls that roiled the campus and local community in 2013, creating fear and outrage and ultimately going viral. A campus climate survey conducted after the event found that the then-administration’s response to the incident broke trust, lowered morale, and contributed to a negative campus climate. As on other campuses nationwide,7 members of the SJSU community—including students from historically underrepresented groups, their allies, and campus leaders—demanded that the administration take responsibility for improving the campus climate for students of color, close the gaps in graduation rates, and make progress in relation to other markers of student success.

My place on the cabinet allows me to serve as consultant and advisor to the president and vice presidents; it also facilitates my ability to coordinate integrated activities, such as campus-wide diversity trainings that help members of different constituent groups develop a common vocabulary and frame of understanding. For example, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion recently trained eighty-five administrators, including some deans, on developing cognitive empathy and reducing bias. Components of this training were consistent with similar trainings conducted among faculty and staff. We also briefed these administrators on a range of cases and issues facing campuses across higher education, helping them establish what biases and microaggressions may look like in different settings.

Strong voices in contentious times

The work described above formed the scaffolding for our response to the 2016 election and its aftermath. After the election, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion held two series of regularly scheduled, voluntary two-hour support meetings—one for staff and, separately, one for faculty. Beginning two weeks after the election and ending in April 2017, these sessions focused primarily on how to facilitate student learning and support students in these contentious times.

By offering these sessions and using them as opportunities to address the requests and concerns of the faculty and staff who attended, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion established a reputation for being responsive and consultative when faced with urgent diversity issues. An analysis of the concerns raised in these sessions, layered over data about regional and system-wide trends, has informed the office’s current and future work to help staff and faculty provide inclusive support to their peers and students.

To reduce equity gaps for students of color and others from groups historically underrepresented in higher education, colleges and universities will need to involve the faculty and staff who interact most directly with students. And we will need the strong voices and institution-wide leadership of our Chief Diversity Officers. These contentious times require it.


1. Scott Jaschik, “Outraged by Trump Win, Students Protest,” Inside Higher Ed, November 10, 2016,

2. Shannon Najmabadi, “Post-Election, Some Professors Feel They Must Play Mediator,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 27, 2017, 239025.

3. For more on the role of the chief diversity officer in institutional change, see Damon A. Williams and Katrina C. Wade-Golden, The Chief Diversity Officer: Strategy, Structure, and Change Management (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishers, 2013).

4. For more on intergroup dialogue, see Patricia Gurin, Biren (Ratnesh) A. Nagda, and Ximena Zúñiga, Dialogue across Difference: Practice, Theory, and Research on Intergroup Dialogues (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2013).

5. Williams and Wade-Golden, The Chief Diversity Officer.

6. For more on the relationship between structural diversity and institutional change, see Sylvia Hurtado, Kimberly A. Griffin, Lucy Arellano, and Marcella Cuellar, “Assessing the Value of Climate Assessments: Progress and Future Directions,” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 1, no. 4 (2008): 204–21.

7. See, for example, Sarah Brown, “When Racism Reappears, How Can a Campus Show It Has Made Any Gains?” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 6, 2016,

KATHLEEN WONG(LAU) is chief diversity officer at San José State University.

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