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The chief diversity officer or CDO is an organization’s executive level diversity and inclusion strategist. According to journalist Bill Picture, about 20% percent of Fortune 500 companies employ diversity officers (Asian Week, Nov. 26, 2005). Steve O. Michael, Kent State University’s Vice President of Diversity Initiatives developed a database in 2006 with roughly 400 diversity officers on college and university campuses. About 80 had the chief diversity officer (CDO) title.
The chief diversity officer serves in an executive level leadership role. According to Billy E. Vaughn, PhD, a history of cultural diversity pioneer work conducted by university professors, cultural diversity consultants, and human resource officers precedes the chief diversity officer. Less than 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies employed diversity officers in 2005, but that number has grown considerably since then. Only recently has there been discussion about the appropriate background education and credentials the diversity officer needs. In the business sector, the role remains tied to human resource management functions. Higher education chief diversity officers tend to have doctoral degrees. The future of the role will be largely determined by the same conditions that have given rise to the profession—changing demographics.
Dr. Damon A. Williams, a key contributor to the national conversation of strategic diversity leadership, and Associate Vice Chancellor, Vice Provost, Chief Diversity Officer, and Faculty Member at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Dr. Katrina Wade-Golden, Senior Research Scientist at the University of Michigan Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives , conducted a major national study of chief diversity officers, with a specific focus on the emergence of these roles in college and universities. This study included over 200 hours of audio recorded interviews, document analysis of more than 1,500 documents and a national survey of over 2500 organizations.
In their research, Williams and Wade-Golden (2008) tackle some of the following questions: What is a chief diversity officer? How are their capabilities designed? How can they play a key role in developing and delivering the diversity goals and objectives of the institutions they serve? Their innovative study resulted in an overarching framework for defining and designing the CDO role by presenting a more conceptually sophisticated and empirically grounded explication of the CDO role, than what has existed in the past
“With this monograph, we really wanted to infuse discipline and clarity into the process of developing chief diversity officer capabilities in higher education and eventually across all organizations,” said Williams. “Too often, presidents are forced to reinvent the wheel because they don't have a solid grasp of the who, what, and how of the CDO. With this monograph, and our impending book, we have hopefully made a contribution that higher education leaders can innovate from as they develop dynamic diversity capabilities at their respective institutions.” 
“The prolific emergence of this capability within higher education is in accord with key societal trends to move the diversity and inclusion discussion from the periphery to the center,” added Wade-Golden. “It also underscores the critical importance for leadership to capitalize on this significant moment in time by giving deep consideration to the type of individual to fulfill the role within a specific institutional context, and equipping that officer with the requisite level of resources to accomplish their work with excellence.”
"One of the key findings of our research on the role of campus diversity officers is that no officer alone can singularly direct campus-diversity efforts; collaboration is essential. Anyone who envisions the officer as leading a cavalry charge like John Wayne is missing the importance of building a consensus and relationships." While some officers may have several units under their direct authority, none has full responsibility for all hiring, leadership development and training, strategic planning for diversity,recruitment and retention, and the myriad of other areas related to an organization's diversity agenda.
They concluded that the most committed organizations have designed chief diversity officer roles that provide overarching strategic leadership to their organization's diversity agenda and play a key role in the highest levels of strategy, decision making,priority setting, and action. These senior officers range in title, from Vice President of Diversity, Special Assistant to the President, to Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and numerous others with each serving as their institution's chief diversity officer.
Indeed within many organization's, the highest ranking diversity leader was termed CDO, regardless of title or rank, even if they were at the director, or program coordinator levels and had very little access to senior leadership and the process of creating enterprise wide strategy. Williams and Wade-Golden have a new study across corporate, higher education, government, and non-profit organizations underway. This new research will partially be presented in their upcoming book, "The Chief Diversity Officer: Strategy, Structure, and Change Management" expected in Fall 2009 with Stylus Publishing Press.
In the article, History of Diversity Trainers and Its Pioneers, Billy E. Vaughn, PhD, certified diversity professional, indicated that most diversity officers were successful in other roles within the organizations prior to being asked to take the helm of a newly developed diversity officer position. Very few have any formal education or background in cultural diversity. “They quickly realize that the work can be daunting,” Vaughn said. However, with new research conducted by Williams and Wade-Golden, and others, the field is maturing as rigorous scholarship is becoming embedded in the conversation of developing the CDO capability across all types of organizations.
Dr. Damon A. Williams authored Strategic Diversity Leadership: Activating Change and Transformation in Higher Education and The Chief Diversity Officer: Strategy, Structure, and Change Management. These two books, in addition to the The Role of the Chief Diversity Officer in Academic Medicine also by Damon A Williams provide much needed research based insight into the role of chief diversity officers across organizational life, offering for the first time, a more full discussion of their definition, competencies, principles for organizational design, and best-practice characteristics.
The roles and responsibilities are as varied as the titles. In general, the major responsibilities are to promote diversity and inclusion and increase cultural diversity in the organization. The diversity officer profession is a product of the changing demands and growth of the body of knowledge in the diversity management field as noted in the article, The History of Diversity training & its Pioneers.
As Williams and Wade Golden note, "It seems likely that change and diversity will be permanent characteristics of the 21st century. The rise of the global economy has led to corporations' seeking employees from different backgrounds and experiences who can work with and lead diverse groups. Social-science research reveals changing demographics and demonstrates the importance of diversity to learning and organizational performance."
As these trends grow more powerful, the diversity professional leadership role will continue to grow as diversity is even more intentionally integrated into strategy, structure, workforce development, marketing and advertising, corporate responsibility and elsewhere. Diversity professionals are increasingly turning to credentialing programs that award the Certified Diversity Professional (CDP) title.