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In the year since protests over racial injustice erupted around the world, corporations big and small have loudly joined the fight against systemic discrimination. Whether with cash—the CEO of Walmart pledged $100 million to address systemic racism. Or with non-monetary efforts to be more inclusive—beauty retailer Sephora, for example, promised 15% of shelf space to products from Black-owned brands.

Another popular tactic: hiring a chief diversity officer (sometimes shortened to CDO). Such job listings tripled across the country since the beginning of 2020 according to DiversityInc.

The role is essentially the CEO for diversity-related work in a company. Or on a college campus. Santa Clara University filled such a position this past summer. In higher education, diversity is not about demographics—i.e. merely increasing the number of non-white-males at an institution. Rather, it is about fulfilling the mission to educate future leaders.

To say that the growth in these roles happened because of 2020’s racial reckoning ignores the countless reckonings that came before. Progress is not that linear. The job’s prevalence has grown on college campuses and elsewhere in tandem with cultural pressures over the past decades, experts say. Last year’s protests were more fuel on a long-burning fire.

“Nothing on a college campus happens in isolation from the rest of society,” says Tabbye Chavous, director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan. Unfortunately, systemic racism and inequality have “been woven into the fabric of higher education since its inception.” And while there have been some incremental changes on many campuses such as the renaming of buildings and efforts to recruit more diverse faculty and students, “any change you see now likely has a deep history of activism that led [to the] hiring of a chief diversity officer,” she says.

Jesuit Mission

Diversity is a core value of the Santa Clara’s Jesuit mission. Respect for the dignity of people of all backgrounds and a deep caring of others are basically the Bronco mantras. There have been numerous initiatives and movements to diversify the Mission campus, dating back to at least 1969, a year that saw student-led protests throughout the country. But these efforts get bogged down in a long dance between progress and stasis, and can feel painful to members of the University community who have long called for change. Hiring a CDO now runs the risk of being too little, too late for those who’ve been hurt.

“It may feel like an acknowledgement that things that should’ve been resolved a long time ago, we’re still struggling with,” Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education(NADOHE), says of all the recent diversity hires. But “it can be a real opportunity for campuses to be what they say they are,” she says: “We are diverse but we aspire to be more inclusive and equitable.”

How can it be negative, after all, Granberry Russell asks, that people are more apt to recognize that it’s time to do things differently? “It’s time to really begin doing the heavy lifting.”

A tall job. Coordinating the efforts to do that heavy lifting at SCU will be T. Shá Duncan Smith, formerly Swarthmore College’s assistant vice president and dean of inclusive excellence and community development. She started at SCU on July 1, 2021. As the new Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, she is a member of the University president’s cabinet, reporting directly to the president, focused on diversity issues that affect every person on campus, students, faculty, and staff.

“In a country that’s becoming increasingly diverse, and you have an increasingly diverse population—and we know that that is who we will serve in the future—you need to be prepared,” Duncan Smith says. “You need to make sure that [diversity, equity, and inclusion] is in everything that you do, because folks should feel like they’re part of your community.”

It’s about being more welcoming, more accessible, more open. As Duncan Smith says, “Nobody wants to be somewhere where they don’t feel like they belong.”

It’s never too late to set out a welcome mat.

Signaling Change

The modern-day chief diversity officer in higher education evolved from efforts to increase enrollment of racial minority students in the 1970s and ‘80s. This growth followed affirmative action laws born from the 1960s civil rights movement and efforts to end racial discrimination in hiring. In 1961, the term “affirmative action” first appeared in President John F. Kennedy’s executive order creating the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Later that decade, President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded hiring and workplace protections to employees regardless of race, religion, sex, or national origin. Colleges followed, admitting more minority students, particularly Black students. Cultural pressures signaling change decades before it arrived.

Anna Sampaio ’92, chair of SCU’s Department of Ethnic Studies, says there are parallels between the rise of diversity awareness and diversification efforts, and the development of fields like ethnic studies and women and gender studies. “In the late ’60s, there were a lot of different things colliding, part of which was the rise of students of color in academia,” she says. “So we saw a growth of students who had previously been pushed out of higher education, [along with] these outside forces like protesting large societal events like the war in Vietnam and segregation in the South.”

As campuses became more diverse, Sampaio says, so too began efforts to “desegregate universities—in terms of population but also intellectually, so disciplines that had long either excluded or misrepresented people of color were reimagined.” Academics began to address ingrained biases and prejudices of those in power who ignored and undervalued the roles of ethnic minorities in society. Meanwhile, students began organizing themselves in multicultural clubs and activism groups, advocating for themselves and demanding better representation.

Equal opportunity administrative positions started popping up on campuses in the following decades, Sampaio says, particularly after Title IX was signed into law in 1973 outlawing the exclusion of anyone from higher education on the basis of sex. Usually such roles were embedded in the Title IX coordinator’s office or in human resources, responding to discrimination complaints.

It’s not until the 2000s, she says, that there is a more conscious effort to not just create staff jobs to respond to complaints. It’s then “you see this kind of bigger imagination asking, ‘How do we not only recruit and retain students, faculty, and staff, but how do we engage and create a campus climate where diversity can thrive?’”

Sampaio says there have been calls for the creation of an administrative position focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion for a long while at Santa Clara. But before Duncan Smith was hired, the work was split into a part-time associate provost role, reporting to the provost, and the director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.


In 2013, Professor Aldo Billingslea, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, was named as the first Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion. He found the campus populated with people deeply dedicated to improving equity and inclusion but operating in silos.

“In every aspect in that position, of trying to move the needle, there was already somebody at Santa Clara doing work in that area,” Billingslea says. Individual departments, offices, and student-run groups were involved in their own initiatives. There was a feeling that everyone should stay in their own lane, he says, but this is the kind of work that requires involvement in multiple lanes.

This sentiment of feeling hampered by the decentralization of the work is echoed by Brett Solomon, associate professor and director of the Child Studies Program, who became the interim associate provost after Billingslea in 2016. The most recent, and final, associate provost of diversity and inclusion is law professor Margaret Russell.

The job’s mandate focused on faculty—not least because diverse faculty is one of the best ways to recruit diverse students. But the broader campus community did not understand the differentiation so “everybody came to me with anything related to diversity and inclusion and equity,” Solomon says. It was especially frustrating as a woman of color when students came to her for help, she says. “It didn’t feel good to me, to say, ‘oh sorry, this isn’t my lane.’”

The Office for Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) was the second piece of that early strategy—to support and recruit professors of color. But, over time, it took on more, says director Ray Plaza.

He’s built relationships with the many people already doing similar work in the Bronco community, including alumni, global engagement, and LEAD scholars for first-generation students. “Diversity is a shared responsibility across campus,” he says.

The new VP position opens wider the umbrella created by ODI and more sharply focuses its work, while raising the profile of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues across campus—not to mention, allocates more resources to them.

Lay Down a Burden

As the welcome mat for more people of different backgrounds is rolled out, students are looking forward to lesswork, in a way. They are hopeful that a diversity-focused position at the highest level of University will mean that officials lead the charge against racism—while Black and brown students can focus on being students—learning, growing, and studying—says Ángel Macías ’22, former director of the student-run Multicultural Center.

As a first-generation college student, LEAD scholar, and Latino, Macías says he’s often felt out of place on campus, except for with his peers at the Multicultural Center. It’s a tall order to have one student group be a haven for anyone who feels like an outsider, he knows. It cannot be everything to everyone. The new vice president can’t either, which he gets. Still he looks forward to others—those with more power—helping to carry more of the weight of inclusion.

“It just feels like we’re going to be able to breathe a little bit, you know, get a weight off of our shoulders and it’s like a big sigh of relief for us students,” Macías says. “It’s that some work is going to be taken off of the students and placed on the administration and placed on faculty and others in charge.”

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