Diversity Boston

What does a CDO do?

By Annelena Lobb
Globe Correspondent / June 27, 2010

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Elizabeth Thornton became Babson College’s first chief diversity officer in February 2008. She recently spoke with Globe correspondent Annelena Lobb about the goals and challenges of the office.

Some local institutions are transitioning to a chief diversity officer role from other types of diversity management. What are the advantages to having such a position?

It’s a cabinet or very high-level position. To do it well, you have to empower that individual with the authority to do the job. It has to be a fully coordinated and integrated role. You can’t just look at cocurricular activities or hiring new staff.

You can’t just focus on faculty. You can’t focus on one department; you need an institutionwide strategy. When Babson president Leonard Schlesinger hired me, he said, “I’m going to be the best partner you’ve ever had.’’ When they see me coming, they see him coming.

What advice would you give a chief diversity officer starting out?

Gain consensus among all cabinet members the day you walk in the door. Seek their input and support. All the work you do must be in complete alignment with — and visibly supported by — the president and provost. When you start your work, have them with you so that everyone sees the highest levels of the institution support the CDO.

You created a council of staff, faculty, and students to achieve diversity goals at your school. How should a chief diversity officer keep other parts of the institution engaged with diversity?

Communication is the most important thing. You can’t assume people will hear or that they will know.

The other thing I’ve learned is to let them drive, and let them lead. It feels really good to me when faculty members who have been here for years decide to host their own initiatives. It’s not about me, it’s about the council members. They’re coming up with the initiatives and executing. The structure is in place, the commitment from above is in place.

How does a weak economy affect the work of a chief diversity officer?

My recommendation is that it doesn’t cost a lot to get people engaged — just have them come and have a discussion or a dialogue about race and gender. That doesn’t have to cost a lot. Don’t put the work on hold, but be creative about how you approach it. You don’t have to bring in a speaker for $10,000. An ice cream party and discussion we held attracted about 40 student group leaders, and it cost about $100.

What does
a CDO do?