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Charleston Outlines Her Approach to Serving as Harvard’s First Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer

Sherri A. Charleston is the University's first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.
Sherri A. Charleston is the University's first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. By Courtesy of Sam Crowfoot, Crowfoot Photography
By Camille G. Caldera and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

Sherri A. Charleston — the University’s first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer — discussed the importance of “concrete objectives” in improving equity issues at Harvard in an interview Wednesday.

Charleston, who assumed her role on Sept. 1, said she is currently focused on “assessing what the community’s needs are” through conversations with students, faculty members, and administrators.

“We are gaining some clarity around what it is that we want to accomplish as an institution, and then charting a pathway for how we want to get there in the respective schools,” Charleston said.

Former University President Drew Faust’s Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging created the role of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer in 2018.

Charleston reports to University President Lawrence S. Bacow, and helps to oversee the implementation of recommendations from the task force. These include recruiting diverse faculty members, improving mental health resources across the University, and creating inclusive and accessible spaces.

She is also currently on the search committee for the next chief of the Harvard University Police Department. Current chief Francis D. “Bud” Riley is retiring at the end of the year, a decision he announced months after The Crimson reported on racism, sexism, and alleged favoritism in the department spanning more than two decades.

Most of Charleston’s work as a senior central administrator will involve coordinating diversity and inclusion initiatives at all 12 of the University’s schools.

Charleston said that the “decentralized” nature of the University is both one of its “greatest challenges” and “greatest opportunities.”

“What's unique about this institution, given it's decentralization, is that we have opportunities to really work in each of those local environments to figure out what works best,” Charleston said.

The central question that underlies her work at each school, though, is the same: “How are we going to improve the experience that our students have, that our faculty, our staff, our postdocs have, in the greatest number of ways, in the shortest amount of time?”

“The agenda on some level could be infinite,” she said.

Given the seemingly endless areas of improvement, Charleston said she believes part of her role is narrowing the agenda to what she sees as most important and achievable.

“We're not going to solve a 400-year-plus problem in a few years — it's just impossible,” she said. “And so part of the work that I do is helping us to think about how we prioritize what, and what's going to allow us to move the needle by catching the greatest number of balls and moving those up the hill.”

Charleston also discussed the importance of measuring success with “somewhat specific and concrete objectives” to help reduce the trust issues institutions face when there is a discrepancy between their words and their actions.

“We just have to be very, very clear about what it is that we're trying to achieve, and then consistently do the work, measuring our progress and assessing it, and when we're not moving in the right direction, changing course,” Charleston said.

She also emphasized the importance of having a larger strategy behind work on equity issues, rather than performing “ad hoc work” that leaves institutions with “no systematic structural progress.”

“It's an act of prioritization, and thinking about how we grapple with these things in very systematic and structured ways that will allow us to make progress,” she said.

Despite the magnitude of the challenge, Charleston remains enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. Though she is just the first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Harvard, she is already thinking about who will be the last.

“I love the work that I do, but I have said this on more than one occasion, I wake everyday, and I try to think about how I'm going to work myself out of a job,” she said. “We shouldn't be here forever.”

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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