Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Sherri Charleston Defends Harvard’s Race-Conscious Admissions Policies


With the Supreme Court set to hear a high-stakes lawsuit challenging Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies, Sherri A. Charleston, Harvard’s first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, defended the University’s practices and commitment to diversity in an interview last Wednesday.

Anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions brought the lawsuit against Harvard, claiming that the school’s consideration of race in its admissions process violates civil rights law and discriminates against Asian American applicants. In January, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case along with a second suit SFFA filed against the University of North Carolina — a move that could have major implications for the future of affirmative action in higher education.

During the interview last week, Charleston said Harvard is defending its holistic admissions process and those of other schools around the country in the legal battle.



“What we are defending, in our case, is the ability of Harvard College and Harvard University — and really all of higher education — to be able to consider the whole student in its practices,” Charleston said.

“I’m a historian of race in this country, and I think quite centrally about the ways in which race is a key component to any number of other factors,” Charleston added.

She said SFFA’s litigation against Harvard threatens the school's ability to ensure diversity and inclusion on campus and that Harvard’s consideration of race in its admissions process is crucial for evaluating prospective students.

“What we’re trying to do is to think about how you evaluate the whole student and see race as a key component of that,” she said.

Barred from recognizing race as a factor in their admissions practices, Harvard and other American universities would fall short of institutional goals, according to Charleston.

“What is at stake here is the ability of colleges and universities across the country to create the kind of diverse communities that I think many people and key research in the area has demonstrated is not only essential to the educational mission of higher education, but is actually essential to the success of students,” Charleston said.

“We precedented diversity in our classes over the course of the last several years and what’s clear is that race-neutral policies result in less diverse classes,” she added.

Charleston also pointed out that William F. “Bill” Lee ’72 — a senior fellow at the Harvard Corporation and the lead trial lawyer representing the University against SFFA — will be speaking at the University’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Forum, a series of events for Harvard affiliates this week.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that, as an objective, Harvard is able to maintain the level of excellence that we’ve seen in our student body and — to be quite clear and quite frank about this — making sure that we have a racially diverse class is core to that excellence,” she said.

—Staff writer Ella L. Jones can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ejones8100.

—Staff writer Monique I. Vobecky can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @moniquevobecky.