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
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
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
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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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