Shared Equity Leadership: Four Approaches to Structuring the Work
As higher education leaders have been increasingly concerned about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), institutions have organized and structured efforts to create inclusive and equitable environments for students, faculty, and staff of diverse backgrounds in a variety of ways. The most typical approach is hiring a chief diversity officer (CDO), who takes primary responsibility to handle DEI-related issues on campus. But the CDO position is limited in creating meaningful changes if power, resources, and authority are not delegated to them. Williams and Wade-Golden (2013), drawing on their extensive research on CDOs, suggest that effective DEI efforts should be organized by many people across campus rather than in a siloed CDO position or office and that the CDO ideally should integrate various DEI efforts across campus. Kezar and colleagues (2008) also note that presidential leadership to advance DEI is most effective when presidents delegate the work to multiple campus actors, such as faculty, administrators, student affairs staff, students, board members, and external organizations.
Our current research examines a way of structuring leadership to strategically advance the equity agenda in higher education, which we call shared equity leadership (SEL). SEL distributes the responsibilities of leading equity work across the institution at many units and departments and within all levels of the hierarchy, from frontline staff to the president. With a focus on collective processes rather than an individual leader’s traits or behaviors, SEL leads to long-term, pervasive institutional change with greater breadth and depth of work and impact. SEL can be structured in different ways depending on institutional types and contexts. In this article, we describe four different structures of SEL that we identified, including hub and spoke, highly structured, bridging, and woven models.
Hub and spoke model
In this model, a CDO or DEI office serves as a hub for DEI work by being connected to and connecting various “spokes” of equity work across campus. The hub integrates many existing DEI programs or initiatives and facilitates collaborations among various departments hosting them, such as student support programs, community engagement programs, and teaching and learning centers. Unlike a traditional CDO, who may lack resources and decision-making power, the hub has direct access to and influence on senior leadership, sitting on a presidential cabinet and advising it on DEI-related issues. At the same time, the leaders in the hub are strongly connected to mid- and ground-level practitioners and maintain a seamless flow of communication from senior leadership to ground-level staff. The hub also acts as a central resource for practitioners and organizes professional development that builds leadership capacity to enact equity work.
Highly structured model
This model is structured around a DEI division or office composed of a CDO and several full-time staff members, but units and departments are also responsible for leading DEI work locally in accordance with their culture and goals. Multiple layers and levels of structure characterize this model. DEI representatives in each unit and department regularly meet one-on-one with central DEI office staff for resources and guidance. They also meet as a group with DEI representatives from other departments to share strategies, challenges, and successes. In this way, DEI efforts can be coordinated with little redundancy and in synergy across the institution. Similar to the hub and spoke model, this model has the central DEI office support professional development for all faculty, staff, and administrators to ensure that everyone across campus develops the capacity to engage in DEI work.
Unlike the above models, the bridging model is not centrally structured around a CDO or DEI office. Instead, leadership in this model is distributed to a presidential cabinet composed of senior leaders and a ground-level council composed of faculty, staff, and students. The cabinet and council are formally tasked with equity responsibility, which is embedded into their existing roles. The senior- and ground-level leadership groups are intentionally connected by a person— “a bridge”—whose primary responsibility is DEI. The bridge works closely with both the cabinet and council and facilitates the communications and collaborations between the two. The bridge also identifies and connects existing equity work across campus, provides one-on-one coaching to leaders, and coordinates professional development to foster equity leadership. The primary role of senior leaders is to establish DEI strategic focus, and they are evaluated based on their progress toward equity goals. The faculty and staff members of the council raise issues at the ground level and make recommendations to senior leaders so that the institution’s strategic focus remains relevant to the problems facing the campus’s diverse constituencies.
While the other models we identified all create new offices or positions dedicated to DEI work, the woven model instead embeds DEI responsibilities into everyone’s current roles and daily work. Everyone, regardless of rank or field, is expected to work for equity and is regularly held accountable for advancing the DEI agenda. In this way, equity work is woven into the fabric of the institution. DEI is central in the campus’s strategic plan and mission, and leaders are held accountable for advancing equity work. Additionally, multiple cross-campus teams or groups work on DEI issues and help to keep DEI front and center even without an individual or office overseeing the work. Collaborative or team-based work is the norm in this model.
Because of the collaborative nature of their work, accountability for equity work is shared across multiple offices and leaders.
While these structures vary, they all have in common a shared or distributed approach to DEI leadership. The particular structure that a campus chooses to create may vary according to institutional history, size, culture, sector, political environment, leadership capacity, or existing DEI work. For example, the highly structured model may work well at a large, decentralized institution but not at a smaller campus, where the hub and spoke or bridge model might be more suitable. The woven model is likely to be effective at a campus that has a history of engaging in equity and has a culture of working collaboratively. As each institution’s context varies, there may be myriad ways beyond our four models to structure this work. We hope that our descriptions help guide you to structure your own unique work of shared equity leadership on campus.
Reflection questions on structuring SEL
- How is DEI leadership currently structured on your campus? Do you have a CDO or DEI executive leader? Are units or offices tasked with DEI responsibilities? How are other groups across campus engaged in DEI leadership and connected with one another (e.g., councils, committees, or commissions)?
- Do you think leadership for DEI is being shared effectively on your campus right now? Who else might need to be included in and connected to your equity leadership efforts? How might you connect existing pockets of DEI work more effectively or build new connections?
- Does your current equity leadership structure share any similarities with any of the models described in this article? What similarities did you notice? What differences? How might you rethink your work to develop a model that more effectively shares leadership for DEI?
Kezar, Adrianna J., Peter Eckel, Melissa Contreras-McGavin, and Stephen John Quaye. 2008. “Creating a Web of Support: An Important Leadership Strategy for Advancing Campus Diversity.” Higher Education 55, no. 1 (January): 69–92. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-007-9068-2.
Williams, Damon A., and Katrina C. Wade-Golden. 2013. The Chief Diversity Officer: Strategy, Structure, and Change Management. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Natsumi Ueda is a doctoral fellow, Elizabeth Holcombe is a postdoctoral scholar, and Adrianna Kezar is the Dean’s Professor of Leadership and Wilbur-Keiffer Endowed Chair at the University of Southern California.