The relationship between Wake Forest University and prominent Black political science professor Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, which appeared strained following remarks she made at a public Dr. Martin Luther King commemoration, appears to be deteriorating even as colleagues come to the academic’s defense.
In response to an inquiry by Diverse, a spokeswoman issued a single-sentence statement on behalf of Wake Forest in reference to Harris-Perry on Friday morning: “Her recent comments about the university are misleading and disappointing.”
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry
The spokeswoman declined to comment further or to respond to what Harris-Perry described as an emailed invitation by Provost Dr. Rogan Kersh to eliminate the Anna Julia Cooper Center, which Harris-Perry founded at the school in 2014 and directs.
Harris-Perry, who also is the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair and received a bachelor’s degree in English from Wake Forest in 1994, did not respond to interview requests from Diverse.
Her blow-up with Wake Forest ignited when, in a keynote address last Monday at the 39th annual MLK Noon Hour Commemoration at Union Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, Harris-Perry said the university has benefited from slavery and racist policies in North Carolina over the decades.
She also told the more than 500 guests at the event that Wake Forest causes food service workers and their families to struggle by firing the workers each summer and rehiring them when students return in the fall.
The university quickly disputed those comments and said its dining service provider employs on 10-month and 12-month terms based on student demand, according to a story published Thursday in the Winston-Salem Journal, a local newspaper.
But Harris-Perry wasn’t done. In a Twitterstorm Thursday, she unloaded on the school, declaring in nine tweets:
· Academic freedom is “truly dead” at the school and Kersh offered her a “’goodwill’ payoff” to eliminate the AJC Center, for which she led “a collaborative of institutions of higher education to commit nearly 100 million in resources for the study of girls and women of color.”
· She has given her “lifeblood to @WakeForest in recent years, leading two centers…without pay” and “giving tens of thousands as contributions to their work.”
· “I have also been ‘difficult’ to work with because even though I love @WakeForest I see the inequities of the place. I call them out even as I have worked to give students faculty and staff all I had.”
· “Most of the resources” to work with a team of students and implement the @WaketheVote bipartisan program in 2016 came from her, not the university.
· She was raped in a public place by a stranger while on a university trip in 2016 “but I never allowed my personal trauma to slow my commitment” to students.
· Despite her academic position, the university “has failed to even provide me with a faculty office this entire academic year – I taught 3 classes last semester. With no office.”
· Said the school’s administration “should be clear. I am NOT leaving or being silent. This is my alma mater. This is my home. The betrayal is painful and scary. But I will not break”
She concluded each tweet with #notforsale.
Some academics took to the social media platform, where Harris-Perry has nearly 692,000 followers, to back up their colleague.
Dr. John B. Diamond, the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education and a faculty affiliate in the departments of Afro-American Studies and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, tweeted that “the attacks on Black women for stating truths about race and history continue.”
In a telephone interview with Diverse, Diamond said Wake Forest’s response to Harris-Perry’s criticism is part of a broader national trend in higher education “to silence protests and to silence critiques of White supremacy.”
“Institutions are about perpetuating themselves,” he added, “and perpetuating their brand over integrity a lot of the times.”
Dr. Marybeth Gasman, the Judy & Howard Berkowitz Professor of Education and director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted, “Thank you @MHarrisPerry for critiquing systemic racism. You have my support.”
Harris-Perry “has every right to be critical of the history and policies at Wake Forest,” Gasmn told Diverse. “She is tenured and also holds one of the highest-level faculty positions on campus. When she was hired, the university knew that they were hiring a Black woman who has dedicated her life to dismantling systemic racism.
“Here’s the issue: Institutions are often willing to invite outspoken scholars to join the institution, but when these same scholars are critical of the systems at that particular institution which uphold racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., the administration will bite back and will attempt to silence them and take away resources. We have seen this pattern across many places for decades.”
Schools often invite people of color into the ivory tower, Gasman continued, “but prefer that they be quiet about the injustices they see and that they experience. We are more interested in demographic diversity than changing our thinking and actions and being accountable for our wrongs.”
Gasman suggested that Wake Forest administrators and Harris-Perry have a discussion.
“There is much to be learned here, especially on the part of Wake Forest,” she said. “I also think that Professor Perry’s academic freedom should be respected and honored in every way.”
Harris-Perry, an editor-at-large at ELLE magazine reached national prominence when she hosted the weekend morning television show “Melissa Harris-Perry” on MSNBC from 2012-2016. She and renowned race scholar Dr. Cornel West crossed swords publicly over professional differences and President Obama’s campaign for reelection in 2012.
Before arriving at Wake Forest in 2014, Harris-Perry taught at the University of Chicago and Tulane and Princeton universities. She has authored two books, the award-winning Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought and Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.
LaMont Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLaMontJones