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Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Advises Students to ‘Think About Calling In, Versus Calling Out’

Sherri A. Charleston, Harvard's Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, spoke about what she called cancel culture in an interview.
Sherri A. Charleston, Harvard's Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, spoke about what she called cancel culture in an interview. By Sydney R. Mason
By Camille G. Caldera and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

In the wake of renewed conversation on campus about academic freedom and inclusion, Harvard’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Sherri A. Charleston said she encourages students to “think about calling in, versus calling out” individuals with whom they disagree.

Last week, Charles A. Murray ’65 — whose work the Southern Poverty Law Center terms “racist pseudoscience” — spoke to affiliates at a webinar hosted by Government Department preceptor David D. Kane, provoking widespread dissatisfaction among department affiliates.

“What I would love to see us do is embrace more opportunities to really engage in dialogue across difference, which is not necessarily about the specific incident but speaks more broadly to this question of, how do we engage when we vehemently disagree with people who are on the opposite side of an issue as us?” Charleston said in an interview with The Crimson on Wednesday.

She said she is “struck” by what she described as a “cancel culture” among some students, and encouraged students instead to “think about calling in versus calling out,” which she described as engaging in “genuine inquiry.”

“It means I’m going to engage with you in genuine inquiry to figure out why you think the way that you think and in listening to you and learning from your perspective,” she said. “Perhaps I challenge it, perhaps I reject it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I exclude you from public debate in the public forum just because I don’t want to hear it,” she added.

The question of who should be allowed to speak “in a public forum” — specifically, on college campuses — is neither new to Harvard nor to higher education.

In the 1980s, protests erupted in response to controversial speakers on campus, including former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and Nicaraguan Contra Jorge Rosales. The last time Murray spoke at Harvard in 2017, some students said he should not be allowed a platform on campus.

Though the Faculty of Arts and Sciences adopted formal Free Speech Guidelines in 1990 to protect the “right to express unpopular views,” the issue remains far from settled on campus.

In fact, the final report of former University President Drew Faust’s Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, released in 2018, named the “union of academic freedom and a culture of mutual respect and concern” as one of its “four goals for inclusive excellence.”

The report also established the post that Charleston now holds, tasking her with implementing its recommendations.

Charleston said she believes “academic freedom, freedom of speech, [and] academic inquiry” are “core to the mission of higher education.”

“Sometimes that means that we will have vigorous disagreement around those who might be present within the context of higher education,” she added.

Her comments on academic freedom and free speech echo those of other administrators, including University President Lawrence S. Bacow, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay, and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana.

At the same time, Charleston also said she recognizes the importance of students feeling safe on campus.

“I do think that we have a responsibility on campus to be thinking about how we make sure that our students feel safe, how we make sure that our students feel protected,” she said. “This is your home, and that is par for the course.”

She said she believes that responsibility is sometimes fulfilled by helping students “develop the tools to critically engage, challenge [and] disagree” with individuals whose views they abhor, a belief she credits in part to her background as an attorney.

“There is a part of me that truly does believe in this process through which we can vigorously disagree, and we can dissent, and we can debate, and through that process, we would hope that the best arguments and the truth would rise to the top,” she said.

Charleston also said it is important to give others “the space and the grace to be able to grow and change their ideas about things, as opposed to cutting them off at the knees.”

“We can do that at the same time that we take unequivocal stances that there are some things that we won’t tolerate,” she said.

—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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