By Elizabeth Holcombe and Adrianna Kezar
As college and university campuses continue to work to transform themselves into more equitable, just, and anti-racist spaces, leaders are grappling with the best ways to undo structural inequities that have become deeply entrenched over time. In recent years, campuses have focused on the chief diversity officer (CDO) position as a mechanism for leading change on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
Many CDOs have been able to lead DEI strategic planning initiatives and make meaningful changes on their campuses. However, the creation of the position is not always accompanied by power, authority, and resources, and some institutions have found limited success at achieving truly transformational change when it comes to equity. CDOs must be positioned for success in a way that accounts for the complex and multifaceted nature of the equity challenges campuses are facing and acknowledges the far-reaching expertise and skills required to make change.
What institutions need is a reconceptualization of leadership for equity, moving from an individual or a small team leading the charge to a shared process that fully distributes responsibility for equity goals across campus. This shared approach to equity leadership aligns with broader leadership trends in higher education that are moving away from so-called heroic approaches to leadership that focus on characteristics of individuals and instead are embracing more collective forms of action that have roots in indigenous communities, communities of color, and women’s leadership (see sidebar for more information on these trends).
Last year, our research team (which includes scholars at the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education and the American Council of Education) published a report on this approach, which we call “Shared Equity Leadership” (SEL). SEL scales equity work and creates culture change by connecting individual and organizational transformation. Individuals embrace a personal journey towards critical consciousness to become a different type of leader, and collectively leaders embody new values and enact a set of practices that form new relationships and understandings. Ultimately, this connection of individual and collective leadership works to dismantle current systems and structures that prevent equitable outcomes.
Our first report on SEL discussed this approach to leadership at a more conceptual level. Now we are focusing on what it looks like in practice. In the most recent report, we present four distinct models for organizing shared equity leadership. They are built on the broader research on shared leadership arrangements as well as Damon Williams and Katrina Wade-Golden’s 2013 book on the CDO role and structuring DEI work. The models include the hub-and-spoke model, highly structured model, the bridging model, and the woven model.
The hub-and-spoke model positions the CDO and staff as a “hub” of support for various “spokes” of existing DEI work across campus. The highly structured model features an extensive staff and multiple units reporting to the CDO, along with many layers of formally designated DEI representatives throughout all academic and administrative units of the university. The bridging model features a senior leader who serves as a “bridge” between two groups of leaders, one at the ground level and one at the senior level, who all share responsibility for DEI work. The woven model intentionally moves away from the CDO structure altogether, instead embedding responsibility for equity work into everyone’s roles across the institution through means both formal (job description, performance reviews, rewards and incentives) and informal (cultural norms and expectations that prioritize equity work, convening intentionally diverse groups of leaders who bring lived experiences to the work). These models are explained more in depth in Organizing Shared Equity Leadership: Four Approaches to Structuring the Work.
Leaders at the campuses we studied admit that these models can be messier and often slower than simply designating a single leader or department as responsible for DEI goals. For these institutions, though, the benefits of changing through a process that is more equitable and inclusive outweighs the potential downsides.
Considerations for choosing an SEL structure
When considering which SEL structure might work best on your campus, here are a few considerations to keep in mind.
Contextual elements that may influence decisions about structure include things like size, complexity or decentralization of the institution, institution type or selectivity, diversity of the student body, diversity of campus leadership, or diversity of the local community.
For example, a very large, decentralized institution with many schools and programs with varying goals might benefit from adopting the Highly Structured model. This model allows for discretion and autonomy in individual offices, departments, or academic units in terms of how they plan to achieve equity goals, while still maintaining an institution-wide focus on DEI. On the other hand, a campus with a very diverse student body and diverse leadership may feel that such a formalized structure does not fit their needs and could instead actually deprioritize or silo equity goals rather than truly embedding them in everyone’s role. For this campus, the Woven model might be a better fit.
History of DEI work and existing structures
Leaders need to determine whether DEI work on campus is well-established—has your campus just developed a DEI strategic plan for the first time post-2020, for example, or is there a much longer history of activism or racial justice work on campus? Campuses with many existing equity-related programs or offices may consider the Hub and Spoke model. This model intentionally maps and connects existing pockets of equity work and helps facilitate collaboration and resource-sharing across groups that may not have previously been connected.
History of collaboration and collective work
Does your institution have a history of working collaboratively or is collaboration nascent on campus? Where might you identify successful collaborations that you could build upon or model your work after? Campuses with a strong history of collaboration could consider the Bridging model, which depends on collaborative groups working at the ground level and senior level of the institution, coordinated and connected by someone in a “bridge” position.
These considerations are just a few that may influence your decision about how to structure and organize shared equity leadership on your campus. We also acknowledge that there may be other ways to structure the work that we haven’t yet identified. The four models we describe in our latest report are just the beginning of a more collective way of thinking about leadership for equity in higher education.