By Doug Erickson, University Communications
LaVar Charleston, an innovative leader and accomplished researcher with nearly two decades of experience related to diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education, has been named to lead the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
Since June 2019, Charleston has served as the inaugural associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion in the School of Education, where he is a clinical professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. He earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from the department in 2007 and 2010, respectively.
“It is with gratitude and a deep sense of responsibility that I take on this new role,” Charleston says. “UW–Madison means so much to me — it’s where I grew as a scholar, a researcher and an administrator. I want every member of the campus community to feel welcome, accepted and supported here.”
Charleston will serve as the university’s chief diversity officer, also holding the titles of deputy vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, vice provost, and Elzie Higginbottom Director of the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement (DDEEA). He will begin on August 2.
“This is a role of utmost importance as we continue to work toward a day when every member of our campus community is able to thrive, with no barriers to success,” says Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “Dr. Charleston thoroughly understands the challenges ahead and brings a comprehensive and impressive set of skills to address them. I’m excited to see where his leadership takes us.”
In his new position, Charleston will provide overall leadership for the university’s efforts to create a diverse, inclusive and successful learning and work environment for all students, faculty, staff, alumni and others who partner with the university. He will partner with schools, colleges and other administrative units across campus while supervising the units that comprise the DDEEA.
Charleston will serve on senior leadership teams at the university, including the Chancellor’s Executive Committee and the Provost Executive Group.
Charleston says he will approach his new role with an acute awareness of how racial and social unrest and a pandemic have made the past two years very difficult for many members of the campus community, especially students and others in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities.
“These are hard and challenging times, but they are also encouraging times, because there’s a renewed energy on our campus,” he says. “We have more allies than we’ve had in recent times, and there’s a renewed sense of ownership and accountability when it comes to anti-racist practices and making sure our environments are inclusive.”
Charleston says his job will be to “look under the hood” and determine what’s working and what isn’t.
“For folks in diversity work, we’ve been really busy, but that’s a good thing,” he says. “We’re synthesizing our role in shaping the culture and instituting the structures that need to be in place so that everyone feels they belong. There are so many groups around campus doing this work, and everyone from the chancellor and the provost to our deans is making a concerted effort around diversity and inclusion. It’s a hopeful time.”
Charleston earned a bachelor’s degree in public relations from Ball State University in 2002. He came to UW–Madison in 2005 as a site coordinator for the Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE).
Other positions at UW–Madison followed, including a long affiliation with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, where he helped found Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB). He served in numerous capacities at Wei LAB, including assistant director and coordinator of the Research and Evaluation Division. Charleston’s research focuses on diversity, access and inclusion within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. He is the author or co-author of 50 manuscripts, including the book “Advancing Equity and Diversity in Student Affairs.”
From 2017-2019, Charleston served as the inaugural assistant vice chancellor for student diversity, engagement and success at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater. He returned to UW–Madison in 2019 to become the associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion in the School of Education.
Charleston says he wants students to feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to the spaces they inhabit. He plans to lead by example.
“What people need to know about me is that I’m a diehard Detroiter – born and raised,” he says. “A lot of who I am comes from my parents and grandmother and siblings and the blue-collar values they instilled in me. They helped prepare me for this moment.”
Charleston played Division I football and sings in Kinfolk, a local soul and R&B band. He enjoys boating, kayaking, biking and motorcycling. His wife, Sherri Ann Charleston, is his “No. 1 colleague and thought partner,” he says. She is the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Harvard University.
Cheryl Gittens has been serving as the interim deputy vice chancellor and chief diversity officer since July of 2020, having previously served as an assistant vice provost in the DDEEA.
“Dr. Gittens has done an outstanding job leading our diversity and inclusion efforts through an incredibly difficult and challenging time in our society and on our campus,” says Provost Karl Scholz. “We are in a stronger place because of her commitment to this institution, and I wish to express my deep appreciation for her work this past year.”
Jerlando F.L. Jackson chaired the 14-member search and screen committee. He is the Vilas Distinguished Professor of Higher Education, department chair of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and director and chief research scientist of the Wei LAB.