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The Peculiar Tenure Denial of Dr. Paul Harris

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The steady flurry of statements issued by colleges and universities in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Blacks, has sickened Dr. Donna Y. Ford.

“They post these hollow anti-racist statements that make me want to vomit,” Ford, a distinguished professor of education at The Ohio State University quipped during a Diverse webcast that I moderated last week. Too often, these statements are “so superficial, so contradictory to their previous actions,” said Ford, that “it’s like they’re just jumping on the bandwagon.”

Dr. Jamal WatsonDr. Jamal Watson

University of Virginia issued their own statement. And on last Friday, Dr. Robert C. Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education and Human Development went a step further and sent a note to his faculty, students and staff announcing a new search for an associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion and a full-time program director, despite a university-wide hiring freeze that has been in place as a result of COVID-19.

“Over the past several months, in considering upcoming priorities for the school, I have reflected on our inclusion and equity work within the School,” Pianta wrote in a letter to his faculty colleagues and students. “I think it’s fair to say that although we have strong and effective work taking place in some areas, the current status is uneven and in too many ways (e.g. hiring) not making enough progress. I take full responsibility for these gaps and lack of progress. It is abundantly clear that we not only need to advance and expand our current efforts, we need more and new ways of working on social justice, equity, and inclusion particularly as our focus on this work has to increase.”

Sounds like a mea culpa and a pledge to right some serious wrongs, right?

But if Pianta is indeed serious about hiring and retaining a diverse faculty, he should immediately endorse the tenure application of Dr. Paul C. Harris, a rising star, whose tenure denial has some of the nation’s most prominent education scholars like Ford scratching her head.

His case is rightly receiving national attention, in part because the Promotion and Tenure Committee’s evaluation of his scholarship—which focuses on the career readiness of underrepresented students and the identity development of Black male student-athletes—smacks of outright bias. The committee even falsely claimed that the Journal of African American Males in Education which Harris has published in, appeared to be “self-published” although the periodical is peer-reviewed and widely respected, particularly among scholars of color.

Just as activists flooded cities across the nation chanting “Black Lives Matter” to express anger, outrage and dismay over the devaluing of Black bodies at the hands of White police and vigilantes, we must also collectively remind institutions of higher learning that “Black Scholars Matter” too.

Of course, Harris isn’t the only one to face such a frontal assault. The list of Black academicians who share similar stories is too long to list here, including Amos Jones, a former Campbell Law School professor and prolific scholar once called a “rock star” by his former Dean. Sadly, his tenure case was torpedoed, and Jones has since filed a lawsuit.

It is no surprise then that Black academicians have taken to social media by the droves to stand in solidarity with Harris, who received high teaching evaluations and not an inkling that his publications in particular and his tenure application in general, was ever in jeopardy.

“Every indicator, both formally and informally was all positive,” Harris told me, adding that he was unnerved by a meeting with Pianta and his department chair on January 31, where the two informed him that when it came to his publication record, he had performed well below their expectations. His teaching, they added, was stellar and for that reason, they were recommending his promotion from assistant to associate professor without tenure.

Harris appealed the decision to UVA’s provost, M. Elizabeth Magill, who sided with the Promotion and Tenure Committee and Dean Pianta. And now, Harris is appealing to the Faculty Senate Grievance committee, with the hope that they do the right thing.

The decision to begin his teaching career at the university founded by slave owner Thomas Jefferson was a family decision. He and his wife Taylor were students at UVA in the late 1990s when the university was under fire for a string of racially charged incidents.

“We remembered as Black students what it meant to have people who looked like us,” Harris said, adding that he had planned to remain at UVA for the long haul. “We knew what we were coming back to.”

And now, his situation is in limbo, as a faculty committee deliberates on his fate.

In an interview, Pianta who has been dean for the past 13 years, wouldn’t comment on Harris’ case. But he said that the creation of two new positions to support diversity initiatives and efforts in the Curry School of Education and Human Development isn’t in response to the wave of protests sweeping the nation or the public dismay expressed over how Harris has been treated.

“It comes from a very different arc,” he said, adding that he had been contemplating ways to improve diversity for about a year now. “I think we’ve been doing work around diversity, equity and inclusion for a long period of time.”

He says that the creation of a diversity office will only accelerate the work in a more dedicated and visible way, including recruiting diverse faculty and mentoring junior faculty members through the process of promotion and tenure.

“We always know we can do a better job,” he said.
Granting Dr. Paul Harris tenure would be a first step in the right direction.

Dr. Jamal Watson is Editor-at-Large at Diverse. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson

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