Professor Melissa Harris-Perry and Wake Forest University clash over MLK speech

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After speaking out against Wake Forest University at an MLK event on Jan. 21, Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor at the university, claims the university retaliated against her by threatening to close an academic center and offering her a “payoff.”

Melissa Harris-Perry, a former MSNBC host and prominent professor, is clashing with Wake Forest University after giving an MLK Day speech critical of the institution.

On Jan. 21, Harris-Perry, who has been the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University since 2014, gave a speech Union Baptist Church in Winston-Salem for the 39th annual MLK Noon Hour Commemoration. During her speech, she criticized the university’s role during slavery and outlined the struggle of the city’s black residents over the years.

Harris-Perry described the unfair labor practices of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., the second largest tobacco company in the country, against black workers in the 1940s and argued that questionable labor practices take place within the university today. According to the Wake Forest University factbook, the college moved from Wake Forest to Winston-Salem in 1941 after accepting a proposal by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation set up by Mary Reynolds Babcock, RJ Reynolds’ daughter. Babcock and her husband donated much of the RJ Reynolds family estate as the site for the new campus.

Harris-Perry also claimed that the school fires its foodservice workers every summer, and then rehires them in the fall before classes start. The university has since disputed Harris-Perry’s claims and told City Beat that their employees are on either a “12-month or 10-month term based on student demand” and that “it is not accurate to say [their] dining service staff are fired and re-hired each year.”

On Jan. 24, just days after Harris-Perry spoke out against WFU in front of more than 500 people, she posted on Twitter multiple times saying that she had been retaliated against by the university. She claimed that university provost Rogan Kersh emailed her asking her to eliminate the Anna Julia Cooper Center, an interdisciplinary research center founded and directed by Harris-Perry since 2012.

“Academic freedom is truly dead @WakeForest,” she tweeted. “Two days after a public MLK address where I called into question the university’s labor practices Provost @rtkersh sends an email ‘inviting’ me to eliminate @AJCCenter as a university entity & offering a ‘goodwill’ payoff. #notforsale”

In a series of following tweets, Harris-Perry explained how she helped to develop multiple programs at WFU, including the Anna Julia Cooper Center, and implemented Wake the Vote, a civic engagement program for undergraduates at the university. She also revealed that she doesn’t have an office despite being a tenured professor.

In response to Harris-Perry’s Twitter allegations, WFU issued a statement saying that her “recent comments are misleading and disappointing.”

A Wake Forest HR employee confirmed on Monday that Harris-Perry is still employed at WFU and an employee in the department of politics and international studies said Harris-Perry was “getting ready to have an office [there].”

“There is no question that I am a ‘difficult employee,’ Harris-Perry tweeted. “I don’t play nice or toe the line or pretend injustice does not exist. On Monday I reminded our community @WakeForest benefited from slavery & Jim Crow and we should raise questions as it encroaches downtown.  #notforsale”

According to the 1935 History of Wake Forest College, Volume I by George Washington Paschal, the “College Building” on the Wake Forest College campus before it moved to Winston-Salem, was built in 1837 by slaves owned by the builder, Captain John Berry.

The building burned down in 1933.

Many academics, including Marybeth Gasman, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke out in support of Harris-Perry online.

On Jan. 24, Gasman tweeted, “Thank you @MHarrisPerry for critiquing systemic racism. You have my support. #racism #highereducation”

Gasman told City Beat she was particularly affected by Harris-Perry’s tweets about academic freedom.

“I think black women in particular feel the squeeze of academic freedom,” Gasman said. “Their rights to speak up are being hampered.”

As the director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, Gasman said she agrees with the things Harris-Perry said during her MLK speech.

“She should be able to critique the institution,” Gasman said. “And talk about race and class and to do it freely. Universities want more people of color; they want the demographics; they want to appear to embrace diversity but what happens often is they’re willing to invite people to dinner but not willing to let them eat when they get there.”

On Twitter, Harris-Perry admitted to being “difficult” to work with because of her outspoken nature. On her last post on Jan. 27, Harris-Perry tweeted that she had no plans of leaving WFU.

“So @rtkersh and @WakeForest administration should be clear. I am NOT leaving or being silent. This is my alma mater. This is my home. The betrayal is painful & scary. But I will not break #notforsale”

Harris-Perry has been critical of the university in the past.

In September 2017, she took to Twitter, calling out the university about their plans to revise the school’s Code of Conduct.

“It’s like performance art each time @WakeForest sends totalitarian emails abt proper behavior & plans to sanction disruption #FirstAmendment,” she tweeted.

JoAnne Allen, the president for Action For Now NC and a native of Winston-Salem, said she has mixed feelings about Harris-Perry’s speech and her subsequent tweets.

“How can you want to come out and talk about RJ Reynolds and Wake Forest University when you’ve probably benefited during your time through your employment?” Allen asked.

Allen, who ran as a write-in candidate for mayor in 2016, has been outspoken against current Mayor Allen Joines, whom Harris-Perry praised in her MLK speech.

“[Harris-Perry] benefits through her employment, the events she goes to, whether she travels and by representing Wake Forest University,” Allen said.

On Jan. 28, Harris-Perry continued to criticize the university.

She cited increasing tuition costs for students but claimed that salaries for professors have not gone up at the same rate. In a separate tweet, Harris-Perry posted a graph by Mother Jones showing how salaries of university presidents have increased at a much higher rate, including the salary for Nathan Hatch, the president at WFU.

“Here too @WakeForest participates,” Harris-Perry tweeted. “In 2017 Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch was the most richly compensated university president in the entire country.”

She also pushed back on the university’s response that they do not hire and rehire food workers every year.

“The pervasive @Aramark 10 month contract effectively creates an effect in working class W-S that is a bit like having this recent government shutdown– EVERY YEAR.”

A few minutes later, Harris-Perry tweeted, “a single university does not and cannot have all the answers to addressing inequity within the Academy or in our communities. But institutional leadership has a responsibility to openly engage these issues even if it doesn’t make for neat and tidy press clippings.”

Harris-Perry declined to comment for this story.

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