Harvard DEI chief is the newest target of plagiarism accusations

The Washington Free Beacon led a similar campaign against ousted Harvard President Claudine Gay.

People walk on campus at Harvard University.Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe via Getty Images file

A conservative news website reported Tuesday on a complaint that accuses Harvard’s chief diversity and inclusion officer of plagiarism, in a campaign similar to the one that led to Claudine Gay’s ouster

The Washington Free Beacon published the complaint filed Monday by an unnamed source accusing Sherri Charleston of 40 instances of plagiarism in her 2009 Ph.D. dissertation and in a 2014 peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Negro Education. Much of the scrutinized language in the 343-page dissertation appears to be background information, including basic facts like names, dates, numbers and descriptions, including historical events.

The unnamed accuser alleges that Charleston failed to give “proper attribution” to several authors, and the Free Beacon alleges that Charleston took credit for her husband’s work in the 2014 study. Her husband, LaVar Charleston, co-authored the 2014 study and his previous research is cited throughout. 

When asked why the Free Beacon also decided to analyze Charleston’s work, and whether the report was part of a broader attack on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, reporter Aaron Sibarium told NBC News in an email, “We stand by our reporting.”

A Harvard spokesperson, Jason Newton, would neither confirm nor deny any investigation into the claims of plagiarism, but appeared to support Charleston in an emailed statement to NBC News.

“Harvard is a community that embraces diversity in backgrounds, experiences and perspectives,” the statement reads. “Through her leadership as Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Sherri Ann Charleston has advanced our belief that everyone who comes to Harvard belongs at Harvard and, whether a student, faculty, staff member or researcher, should have the opportunity to succeed.”

Charleston and her husband did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The people behind these attacks have no interest in plagiarism,” said Erica Foldy, a professor at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service who focuses on race and racism in organizations. Foldy added that conservative activists and groups attacking DEI efforts “have a political agenda.”

“It’s, sadly, kind of predictable. When there is progress toward equity and justice, then there are reactions against that. There’s always going to be a backlash, and that’s what we’re seeing.”

The report comes just weeks after Gay resigned from her position as Harvard president following backlash for her testimony at a December congressional hearing about antisemitism as well as compounding allegations of plagiarism. Conservative activists Christopher Rufo and billionaire investor Bill Ackman, along with the Free Beacon, led the campaign against Gay, and used both the situation and plagiarism allegations to attack diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives

Harvard University President Claudine Gay testifies at a hearing about campus antisemitism on Dec. 5. Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA via AP file

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, also recently had to request the retraction of six studies and seek corrections for 31 others after a biologist and blogger unearthed several instances of research misconduct. 

Rufo shared the Free Beacon’s report on X and wrote in a subsequent post: “Havard’s president was a plagiarist. Harvard’s chief diversity officer is a plagiarist. We will keep exposing them, one by one, until the university restores truth, rather than racialist ideology, as its mission.” 

Gay has acknowledged attribution issues in her past work and said that she has requested corrections for the articles. She wrote in a New York Times op-ed after her resignation that she never imagined she’d have to “defend decades-old and broadly respected research.” She added that those who campaigned for her ouster “recycled tired racial stereotypes about Black talent and temperament. They pushed a false narrative of indifference and incompetence.”

Right-wing media outlets, politicians, lawyers and social media influencers have spent months waging war on DEI efforts in everything from higher education to airlines. In the months since conservative activist Ed Blum successfully led the charge to convince the Supreme Court to restrict race-conscious college admissions, similar groups have filed complaints and lawsuits against minority-owned businesses with equity initiatives. States like Florida, Texas and Utah are among the handful whose legislatures have instituted sweeping bans on DEI efforts in higher education. These attacks are bolstering the importance of culture war issues ahead of the 2024 election.

Foldy said it’s important that institutions like Harvard continue to support DEI efforts amid the heightened scrutiny.

“People understand that there’s a pattern and this pattern is only going to continue. Unless there’s a concerted response, these attacks will continue unchecked,” Foldy said. “Being the leader of DEI within an institution, whether it’s at a university or corporation, it’s really challenging work for a variety of reasons. It makes a very difficult job even harder.”

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