Editor’s note: Attempts to reach Dr. Sherri Ann Charleston for direct comment were unsuccessful. All quotes included were given to The Harvard Gazette.
The push for equality and inclusion seems to be taking off around the country in the places where we need it the most. On Aug. 1, native Detroiter Dr. Sherri Ann Charleston began her appointment at Harvard University as its new chief diversity and inclusion officer, continuing a long and well-renowned career of championing diversity in high-level academic and professional spaces.
“I am thrilled to see the groundswell of work that already exists at Harvard, and I look forward to synthesizing and integrating the university’s many effective diversity and inclusion efforts into a visible, innovative strategy for enhancing diversity, equity, access, inclusion and belonging across campus,” Charleston told The Harvard Gazette.
Named one of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education’s top 35 women in higher education in 2019, Charleston’s list of accomplishments is just as impressive and wholesome as you’d think. She earned her B.A. from Columbia University in history and African American studies, her M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan, and Juris Doctor from the University of Wisconsin Law School.
With working experience and expertise in matters of affirmative action, Title IX and disability advocacy, Charleston stands out as a fierce fighter for underrepresented and disenfranchised students and faculty.
“My approach to the work is very much grounded in my academic interests in history and the law, and in thinking about how we’ve evolved – and how we haven’t evolved – around questions of race and gender, and it comes from a deep passion toward effecting sustainable organizational change and creating structures that outlast all of us, so that we can actually make progress,” Charleston says.
Before accepting the new position at Harvard, she served as the assistant vice provost for diversity, equity and inclusion and chief affirmative action officer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There, she worked to correct historical inequities and speak for those whose voices are muffled.
She helped to oversee and initiate many of the university’s more diverse programs, including the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community, the Posse program, the Employee Disability Resources Office and the Office of Strategic Diversity Research and Planning. She also focused on creating scholarship aid and increasing retention rates for students at risk of slipping through the cracks.
“Sherri is an administrative leader and interdisciplinary scholar whose work at the intersection of history and law informs her efforts to translate theory into practice that improves higher education,” Harvard President Larry Barcow tells the Gazette. “I look forward to working closely with Sherri and other members of my senior leadership team to drive and support our strategic plans for diversity, inclusion and belonging across the university.”
As the CDIO, Charleston will be one of the faces and implementers of the Harvard University Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, an initiative started by the school in 2016 with the aim of developing diversity, community and accountability amongst Harvard’s social and academic communities.
In 2017, Data USA reported that Harvard’s enrolled student body was 41.8% white, 13.5% Asian, 8.19% Hispanic or Latino, and just 5.4% Black. College Factual places the ratio of white teachers and faculty to other races at 69%, dwarfing other demographics.
According to the final report released by the task force in 2018, those numbers have improved, and Harvard recognizes that “achieving diversity and inclusion requires deliberate attention and effort, not merely the absence of intentional discrimination or ill will.”
Essentially, schools and institutions need to not just talk about being more inclusive – they need to walk the walk, and make active, visible effort to diversify their surroundings. It isn’t just about hiring and recruiting students and teachers of other races.
As Charleston puts it, “I fundamentally believe that many of the challenges that we face in higher education relative to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging have answers rooted in applied research. We must work together in the field to find them.”