On March 17, 2022, Dr. Shaun Harper took to social media to share a personal career announcement that had lots of people talking, both inside and outside of education.
Harper told his thousands of followers that come May 2023, he was planning to step away from the USC Race and Equity Center, the national research center he founded that works, as its website indicates, “to illuminate, disrupt, and dismantle racism in all forms,” while “eradicating sexism, xenophobia, islamophobia, antisemitism, ageism, ableism, sizeism, and other engines of human suffering.”
In the post that quickly spread across LinkedIn, Facebook, and X (formerly known as Twitter) like a raging wildfire, Harper noted: “While I am enormously proud of what our center has accomplished, I know for sure that administrative work is no longer the best use of my gifts as a scholar and teacher. I have many, many other creative, entrepreneurial, and social impact activities that I want to explore in the next chapter of my faculty career at USC. I have important books I want to write. When I transition in May 2023, I would have been our center’s executive director for 12 full years – that is long enough.”
Ask Harper if he still feels that way today, and his answer is a resounding yes. Yet, five months after he vowed to step away as the leader of the center that has been catapulted to national heights, he’s still at the helm, taking a surgical approach to cementing the center’s structure and enduring legacy.
“I feel a sense of responsibility to the organization that I created and to all the people that it serves – not just the 29 people who work here, but also the hundreds of companies, universities, and school districts that we’re working with,” says Harper in an interview with Diverse. “I just know in my gut that it wouldn’t be right to walk away from the center without doing more to ensure its future.”
Building beyond higher education
From its inception, the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education that Harper breathed life into back in 2011, while a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, fundamentally revolutionized the way higher education leaders thought about and approached DEI. That work continued, and it expanded in focus when Harper relocated to USC in 2017 to join the faculties of the Rossier School of Education and the Marshall School of Business. He brought his creation – which he renamed the USC Race and Equity Center – with him to California.
Now, with a broader focus and mandate, the USC Race and Equity Center has successfully partnered with more than 700 organizations in K-12, higher education, government, military, nonprofit, and corporate sectors to provide programming and services aimed at helping professionals and leaders take a more equity-minded approach to their work. In the process, these practitioners have come to look to the center, and Harper in particular, to conduct climate assessments, pay equity analyses, DEI coaching and strategy advising, and professional learning experiences.
Harper created the National Assessment of Collegiate Campus Climates (NACCC), a quantitative survey for higher education institutions. Launched in 2019, the NACCC has since been administered to more than 2 million students at colleges and universities across the United States.
“I’m an intellectual. When I came to higher ed, I thought I wanted to be an administrator, but it became really clear to me in the earliest years of my career that I’m more useful as a researcher, a teacher, a writer, a thinker, and a strategist – not so much as an administrator,” Harper says. “Given the way that the center has grown, it requires tremendous administrating. I’d much rather be writing and translating my research for policymakers, practitioners, and executives.”
What Harper has been able to do by strengthening DEI efforts across three distinct portfolios — K-12, higher education, and the corporate sector — particularly in the wake of ongoing assaults on diversity and equity efforts, has been a game changer for the nation.
“Professor Harper has shifted the field several times to elevate the importance of topics historically ignored,’ says Dr. Jerlando F.L. Jackson, dean and MSU Research Foundation Professor of Education of the College of Education at Michigan State University. Jackson points to Harper’s early work on Black males and his current efforts focused on anti-racist practices as examples worthy of study. “Impressively so, his work has made a difference in employment domains beyond education.”
As Harper’s scholarship has grown in prominence and national stature, so too has the center that he created. Within its first six years, the center generated about $13 million in revenue from contracts and investments from foundations. Today, that number hovers near $37 million — a far cry from the $30,000 investment that he received from the University of Pennsylvania to jumpstart his idea.
“Part of the reason why I can’t step away and do other things that I want to do is that our center doesn’t have the luxury of being on an incredibly firm financial foundation that many other white-led centers and institutes enjoy,” says Harper, adding that this widening disparity has created serious structural inequities for centers and institutes led by people of color. He can’t step away, he says, “until I can be absolutely sure that the future of the center is secured.”
It’s that kind of approach to stewardship and care exhibited by Harper that has resonated with Dr. Pedro Noguera, the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.
“Throughout his career Shaun Harper has been driven to use his research and scholarship to address the critical issues related to race and equity in our society,” says Noguera. “Over time he has become more prolific as a researcher and writer, and this is reflected in the center he has built at USC. His dedication and commitment has been a source of inspiration to many. Throughout his career, Shaun has been a team builder and an excellent mentor. As a result of his vision and generosity, he has single-handedly contributed to the preparation of dozens of scholars across the nation who share his passion for using educational research to address systemic inequality in our country.”
A public intellectual
Harper has used his access to media — whether on the Dr. Phil Show or CNN — or his online columns published on Forbes.com to raise awareness about critical issues to a national and international audience that extends far beyond his USC classroom.
“I wasn’t on Dr. Phil talking about craziness,” he says of his four appearances on the nationally syndicated talk show that went off the air last spring. “I was on there talking about my research and what I know from the work that I do on the ground in schools, higher education institutions, and companies.”
A native of Thomasville, Georgia, Harper’s rise through academe has not surprised those like Dr. Lori Patton Davis, a professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at The Ohio State University and the first Black woman to serve as president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.
“There isn’t another person that I can think of who demonstrates the level of commitment and care when it comes to scholarship focusing on how Black men experience educational trajectories or how race and racism have shaped higher education,” says Patton Davis, who has known Harper since their days as doctoral students at Indiana University. “What I think is awesome is he has really expanded beyond our individual field of higher education studies and has established a sound and trustworthy reputation across education and even into the corporate sector.”
Though Harper has spent much of his career working at private, elite universities, his entire educational training, from kindergarten through Ph.D., has been at public institutions.
“My roots are in public education,” Harper says. “I have the heart of a public-school educator and, therefore, enjoy teaching the public.”
This experience, he says, has aided in his quest to become an engaged public intellectual who can weigh in on policy issues that impact the masses of people, particularly people of color.
“Even as an early career scholar, a serious point of pride for me was when I was writing peer-reviewed journal articles,” Harper says. “I always wanted to make sure that the implications for policy and practice section was the hottest. Through policy, millions of people’s lives can be improved. I want more of that helping to shape and influence policy-making at the state and federal levels.”
Last October, President Biden appointed Harper to the National Board for Education Sciences. In 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him to a statewide taskforce on equity, higher education, and COVID-19 recovery. In May 2015, former President Barack Obama named Harper to his My Brother’s Keeper Alliance National Advisory Council. He has testified twice before Congress.
“I want to expand my research and leverage my influence to do more for the public,” says Harper whose aim, now that he is at the pinnacle of his career, is laser-focused on correcting longstanding racial inequities that “disadvantage my people and that disadvantage our nation.” That includes engaging much more forcefully on how the political divides taking form at the state and federal levels often become racialized and result in racist, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist legislation.
“I think Shaun has established a model of what can happen through innovative thinking,” says Patton Davis. “I think he is very strategic, and across his career he has done a phenomenal job of holding organizations and individuals to account.”
Initially, Harper was an Ed.D. student at Indiana because he thought that he wanted to work his way up the administrative ladder in student affairs to become a vice president of student affairs and eventually an HBCU president.
“Those were the goals and the pathway,” says Harper, who quickly transitioned into the Ph.D. program. But he says he has felt most gifted as a writer, teacher, thinker, and researcher.
“It has always been important for me to translate my research into practical actions that administrators and faculty members can actually implement,” he says as he takes a panoramic view on his career. “I’ve massively scaled that from a few pages in journal articles to a holistic career approach.”
A high-impact career
Harper’s career approach has yielded impressive results.
Harper has written 12 books and 113 peer-reviewed journal articles, policy reports, and other academic publications. His research has been cited in numerous amicus briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. According to the Congressional Record, one of his Forbes articles was referenced and fully entered into record on the House floor by House Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, in September 2022. He has also been a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center since 2016.
A past president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), he was inducted into the National Academy of Education in 2021.
In 2022, Harper was named University Professor at USC, a distinction that is bestowed only to 26 of the university’s 4,700 full-time faculty members. He is one of 14 Provost Professors at the university. These are distinguished interdisciplinary scholars who teach in two or more academic schools at USC. Harper’s teaching appointments are in the Rossier School of Education and the Marshall School of Business. He also holds the Clifford and Betty Allen Chair in Urban Leadership.
Two days ago, he was officially appointed to the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy faculty as a Professor in the Department of Public Policy and Management. Price is the nation’s fourth highest-ranked policy school, just behind Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. With this newest addition, Harper is now the only Black tenured full professor who holds paid, non-courtesy appointments in three USC academic schools.
Despite a grueling administrative schedule overseeing the center, Harper teaches at least one class every semester. Each fall, he offers a course in Rossier, and in the spring, he teaches a class in Marshall’s MBA Program.
“Every year, that’s the cadence,” says Harper. “It’s really important for me to teach, unless I’m on sabbatical. I believe that students who apply to come to this place deserve access to top professors so for that reason, I never fully buy myself out of teaching.”
For the Price School, he will teach in executive and certificate programs; conduct and publish policy-focused research; advise doctoral students and serve on dissertation committees; assist in the recruitment of diverse faculty and students; and meaningfully contribute to the actualization of the School’s strategic DEI goals. In addition, he will represent Price in local, state, and federal legislative hearings, as well as in various policy activities and partnerships across all levels of government.
Harper acknowledges that his career has largely been free from much of the racism and microaggressions other Black scholars routinely endure.
“Every Black person deserves to be as respected and as loved and appreciated as I’ve been over these past six years at USC,” he says. “It’s not lost on me that mine is an incredibly rare experience, which I think is really unfortunate.”
At his endowed chair installation six years ago, Harper used his speech to offer USC administrators some sage advice: if they really wanted to celebrate and honor him, they would make sure that he wouldn’t be the last Black professor appointed to an endowed chair there.
The last lap
Looking ahead, Harper says that he’ll spend the next three to four years ensuring the permanence of the center’s infrastructure, including securing its financials and helping to identify a trustworthy successor who has the stature, relationships, and influence in K-12, higher education, and corporate contexts.
“I am reminded annually when I sign my administrative reappointment letter, that I serve at the pleasure of the president, provost and the Rossier School dean,” says Harper. “It will ultimately be their decision who my successor will be. I just want to make sure that I hand over an incredibly stable, well-financed, very clean organization to the next person and it’s going to take more time to accomplish that. I feel a founder’s sense of responsibility to see it through.”
If the center is to thrive well into the future, he suggests he’ll need to be much more intentional about helping the organization develop its own brand separate from him.
“I’ve been attempting over the past few years — and I am going to do it with greater intensity in the next couple of years ahead — to have people not think of the center as being synonymous with Shaun Harper,” he says. “I want the center to have a strong enough brand and identity on its own. That’s a goal of mine.”
Beyond the center, Harper says that his next career move will be a deeper engagement that reaches even further beyond the ivory tower.
“In the first leg of my career, it was really important for me to do the research, establish credibility, get tenure and promoted to full professor at Penn,” he says. “What has become more important to me is influence and reach. I think at this particular juncture in my life and career, I would much rather reach a larger set of publics.” In addition to working across more professions, he is deeply committed to leveraging his research to have a bigger impact on policy.
To be sure, he isn’t done with pursuing his research agenda and academic publishing. But he says the 70 articles he has written for Forbes that have generated over 700,000 reads over the past 14 months are “a different level of using my intellectual gifts to reach and teach the nation.”
Beyond all of that, here’s what Harper, who turns 48 on Oct. 26, says he knows for sure.
“My next move in a decade is retirement,” he says matter-of-factly. “In exactly 10 years from now, I would have been a professor for 30 years. That’s long enough.” Harper will spend two of those years on sabbatical.
“This next decade is the last lap,” he says, “Hence, I don’t have time to waste on academic pointlessness as I actualize my next social impact moves. I am really grateful. I just want more. And not more for myself, but more for students of color at all levels of schooling as well as for people of color across professions and communities.”